Saturday, May 20, 2017

What Is Patriotism?

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- First, I want to read you something about our new president by Timothy Snyder, historian of Central Europe and the Holocaust:
What is patriotism? Let us begin with what patriotism is not. It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. It is not patriotic to discriminate against active-duty members of the armed forces in one’s companies, or to campaign to keep disabled veterans away from one’s property. It is not patriotic to compare one’s search for sexual partners in New York with the military service in Vietnam that one has dodged. It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes, especially when American working families do pay. It is not patriotic to ask those working, taxpaying American families to finance one’s own presidential campaign, and then to spend their contributions in one’s own companies. It is not patriotic to admire foreign dictators. It is not patriotic to cultivate a relationship with Muammar Gaddafi; or to say that Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin are superior leaders. It is not patriotic to call upon Russia to intervene in an American presidential election. It is not patriotic to cite Russian propaganda at rallies. It is not patriotic to share an adviser with Russian oligarchs. It is not patriotic to solicit foreign policy advice from someone who owns shares in a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to read a foreign policy speech written by someone on the payroll of a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to appoint a national security adviser who has taken money from a Russian propaganda organ. It is not patriotic to appoint as secretary of state an oilman with Russian financial interests who is the director of a Russian-American energy company and has received the “Order of Friendship” from Putin. The point is not that Russia and America must be enemies. The point is that patriotism involves serving your own country.  (From: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2016)
- Our president is a bad guy and likely a traitor. What else is new?
- He might try a Fascist take-over. He spouts the Fascist program: the people are weakened, they suffer the incursions of a evil enemy, but he, not afraid to use violence, is the one the lead the the nation back to greatness. Hitler promised a government that would improve the material lives of his people, but his real goal was to embark on a race war in which Germans could purify themselves of the corruptions of ideas of sympathy, kindness, and cooperation the Jews had contaminated the whole world with. Our new president also claims to be interested in the well-being of his people, but he may have intentions similar to Hitler's of taking control of the entire government and ending the rule of law; and then, on the occasion of a terror attack, real or fake, embark on a program of conquest.
- And you worry Americans might become mass murderers like the Germans?
- I do! What's to stop Americans from becoming agents of terror to each other inside the country and mass murderers outside? Snyder has collected evidence that most of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were killed in the countries east of Germany invaded first by the Soviet Union then by Germany. Natives of the invaded countries were employed as killers, first in the name of protecting communism from its enemies and then in the name of protecting the Nazis from their communist enemies, the Jews. Mass killing doesn't seem to require belief, only requires willingness to use violence, identification with one's role in one's group, and characterization of the enemy as dangerously alien.
- The killers didn't have to be anti-Semitic?
- Not at all. Some were, but belief was not required. Any story could be told. What cannot be done without, is essential, is loyalty to one's place in the group, indulgence in violence, and discovery of enemy infiltration. The social psychologist James Waller argues* that situations satisfying those conditions can produce a mass murderer out of anyone, though some individuals are able to hold out longer than others.
- Then he excuses everyone.
- He says he doesn't excuse, that he is only speaking of probabilities. He explains the conditions under which mass murder can be expected, but individuals are still responsible. It's like he's looking out a window at people pass by: when this man is seen, this woman usually is too. He doesn't know the relation between, the reason for, the two observations being associated, which is perhaps that the man and woman are married. All that he has to suggest is that if we are authentic and responsible we might be able to better resist the demands of the group. But does this get us anywhere? Are we saying anything more than someone who can resist a group's demand that he mass murder is someone who resists demands of a group? We need to know how this linkage between character and deed comes about, the cause, not just the probability. We need to know what allows some but not others to resist the demands of the group. Do you have any idea?
- I have what it pleases you to make to fun of calling it my system or computer: types of behavior identified as either ethical or vain, based on Yes or No answers to whether there is awareness of self and world in action and rest.


 Ethical:
                                     action                       rest

self aware?                     Yes                           No
aware of world?              No                            Yes


---------------------------------------------------------------


Vain:

                                    action                       rest

self aware?                    No                           Yes
aware of world?             Yes                           No



Ethical action aims towards ethical rest. Vain action aims towards vain rest. In moving from ethical action to ethical rest, we are aware of our self in movement. We can tell that story. In moving from vain action to vain rest, we are not aware of ourselves in movement, consequently we cannot tell a story. We forget the passage, and this forgetting is what allows for the claim to be reborn in ritual. The "combinations" of ethical action leading to vain rest, and vain action leading to ethical rest, are excluded, as the first allows only awareness of self and none of world, the other only awareness of world and none of self.
- Your behavior computer computes them to be insane: we need some knowledge of both self and world to assemble a relation of self to world. Without a consistent relation of self to world we go crazy.
- Yes. Risk of insanity provides a natural barrier to changing from ethical to vain.
- And vain to ethical.
- Yes. If you can stand something so simple applied to something so complicated, I'll go on.
- Go on.
- The mass murderer's behavior fits perfectly into the categories vain action and vain rest. Vain action is intoxicated, a self-unaware rush to change the world back to a form in which we felt more powerful: self unaware, aware of the world acted upon. The vain rest of the mass murderer is spent thinking of himself having recovered security through seeing himself in his power to murder others: self aware, world (outside of others murdered) unaware. Turn this upside down, and we get ethical action and ethical rest. Action: awareness of self in role, but a role played without fixed relation to the world, which is left unaware while it undergoes change caused by our role play. Rest: unaware of ourselves in awareness of being at home and secure in the beauty of the world. The mass murderer loses himself in a world that is defined as the object of his violence. Secure relation in one's role to the role of others in the group is what is important, not at all the world or any truth about it. Meaning is found in achieving that security, not in the truth of a story of one group's danger to another. You see the connection with the way our new president constantly lies and contradicts himself?
- He says what he thinks will give him power in the situation he finds himself in. Truth about the world is no consideration at all.
- Yes.
- Our resistance to becoming mass murderers is not a matter of probability, depending on the temptation of the situation and a vaguely defined authenticity and responsibility, but a question of whether we can maintain a clearly defined ethical character, a question of practice, of how we are in the habit of living. Resistance a not a question of society, of whether there is a rule of law. Mass murder arises in countries that have become stateless, and in one-party states in which the rule of law is absent, such as the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia. But strict obedience to law, if it is done unthinkingly, fits the description of unethical action. It is used in training soldiers to kill. In a state where rule of law reigns, the strictly obedient, when tempted by the fascist program, easily succumb, don't resist while rule of law is dismantled. Far from being a protection against mass murder, rule of law can be a preparation for it. Snyder tells the story of policemen who one day were directing traffic in Munich three days later were in the East marching Jews into the forest by the hundreds and shooting them.
- Avoiding becoming mass murderers is not a question of what kind of society we have, how far away from lawlessness it is. Rule of law will not save us. Avoiding mass murder depends on how individuals are in the habit of living, ethically or not. The question for us then is, How are we Americans living? Ethically? **

Further Reading:
The President's People
The Golden Rule & The Deviant Path
The Mathematics Of Consciousness
_____________________
James Waller, 'Becoming Evil, How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing', Oxford University Press, 2002
** Video: Noam Chomsky, On Being Truly Educated. Transcript: "My name is Noam Chomsky, I'm a retired professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I've been for 65 years. I think I can do no better about answering the question of what it means to be truly educated than to go back to some of the classic views on the subject. For example the views expressed by the founder of the modern higher education system, Wilhelm von Humboldt, leading humanist, a figure of the enlightenment who wrote extensively on education and human development and argued, I think, kind of very plausibly, that the core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively independently without external controls. To move to a modern counterpart, a leading physicist who talked right here [at MIT], used to tell his classes it's not important what we cover in the class, it's important what you discover. To be truly educated from this point of view means to be in a position to inquire and to create on the basis of the resources available to you which you've come to appreciate and comprehend. To know where to look, to know how to formulate serious questions, to question a standard doctrine if that's appropriate, to find your own way, to shape the questions that are worth pursuing, and to develop the path to pursue them. That means knowing, understanding many things but also, much more important than what you have stored in your mind, to know where to look, how to look, how to question, how to challenge, how to proceed independently, to deal with the challenges that the world presents to you and that you develop in the course of your self education and inquiry and investigations, in cooperation and solidarity with others. That's what an educational system should cultivate from kindergarten to graduate school, and in the best cases sometimes does, and that leads to people who are, at least by my standards, well educated."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Free Speech Against Free Speech / Thought Experiments





- Hey Rex. Where are you coming from? Are there any events today?
- Could be. I was at the sculpture garden, and do you know what happened?
- What?
- I was sitting, writing, computer on my lap, when I felt something on my arm: a sparrow had landed on me!
- What did you do?
- I flinched, and the sparrow flew away.
- Why did you do that?
- I'm not accustomed to birds being summoned by my words. I'm not Saint Francis. And then, do you know what?
- What?
- The sparrow flew back.
- To your arm?
- Yes.
- Did you shake it off?
- No. It stood still for a few moments, then flew away. You know, I'm going to put you in what I'm writing. I'll bring in the bird somehow.
- Are you using my name?
- Sure.
- You have to change it.
- I'll change it from 'Dolly' to 'Molly'.
- That's too close.
- No matter. Upon reconsideration I don't think I will be making a change. As a committed supporter of our new president you're not deserving of my charity.
- What are you writing about?
- Thought experiments. How about I do one on you? See that old man over there?
- Yes. You know him?
- No. Imagine him coming over here and saying to you, Will you be my friend?
- No, I won't. Why should I?
- Wait, we haven't finished setting up the experiment. This old man goes on to describe himself to you, and not to make a mystery of this, everything he is going to say about himself is true of our new president who you are so attached to. Not true because someone somewhere says it is, but because court documents and videos of him admitting the truth himself prove their truth. So this is what he says:
Please, little old lady who's lived on the street for the past seventeen years, sleeping on church porches and going to lectures at the university for the free food and drink, pretending to be interested: dear little old lady, will you be my friend? May I tell you about myself? I love to brag about how I molest women and get away with it. I cheat people, both rich and poor, in the many contracts I make. I refused to pay immigrant workers from Poland I hired to build my buildings. I refused to pay caterers for my many parties. Courts ordered me to pay these people, and then since I had to I did. I loved defrauding poor people desperately trying to better themselves by buying from me a high priced education, I loved cheating them by claiming I was personally involved when I wasn't, lying that I was offering accredited university education when I was only offering trade school. I love to incite crowds to beat up people who disagree with me, offering to pay their legal expenses if they're arrested for the crimes I ask them to commit. I love to lie, to lie, to lie and lie and lie again, to lie all the time. I lied yesterday when I got the head of the FBI fired who kept investigating me for my illegal business arrangements with Russia, I lied when I told people I got him fired because he had illegally exposed my greatest adversary, though I've been recorded many times praising the man for making that very exposure. I lie careless of consequences or obviousness. I'll say it's sunny when it's raining. Look at me. I twist my face into repulsive grimaces, the hair on my head seems to belong to another species, and both my face and hair have an unnatural orange color. My use of language, vocabulary and grammar, is worse than an average three or four year old child's. In fact what I'm telling you now is far beyond my language abilities, I must be inspired by god. So, Dolly, will you be my friend? I molest, cheat, lie, incite people to violence, can barely speak and am physically repulsive. Will you be my friend, Dolly?
- Don't call me 'Dolly' when you write.
You will be my very good friend, Molly-Dolly? You know, my very good friend, though I molest, cheat, beat up others, I'd never do that to you. You know that could never happen, my dear Dolly.
- Write 'Molly'!
- Can this man be your friend, Dolly-Molly?
- You're just resentful because you're not rich like he is.
- So your answer is, Yes? You do take him for your well-chosen friend?
- Yes. He's unconventional, like me
- You don't care about the sexual assaults and cheating the poor, his incitement to violence and non-stop lies?
- That's just what you say.
- For the thought experiment I ask you to assume that it is all true, as in fact it is. Making that assumption, he'd still be your chosen friend, right? It wouldn't make any difference.
- No, it wouldn't! No one's perfect. All politicians lie.
- They do. But in the same quantity? Are they corrupt to the same extent? Haven't the efforts of other politicians to keep the appearance of good behavior restrained them from the worst possible excesses while in office? Whereas we see in our new president's behavior that absolutely nothing restrains him from the most outrageous, openly dishonest behavior.
- That's your opinion, I have mine.
- For our thought experiment then your answer is, Yes, my dear, I accept your friendship.
- You've told me about Dolly before. I like her. You make fun of her, but I think by some miracle she is enjoying herself in her difficult circumstances. I like your sparrow too. Do you assign it any meaning? A symbol portending your future?
- No.
- Is that because, as you said about narcissists, they make the world their instrument,* you'd be using the incident as tool of interpretation?
- Can't I simply say it was beautiful? 
- I won't stop you. Speaking of thought experiments: Do you know 'The Trolley'? A trolley car is out of control, rushing towards five people tied to the tracks. You have in your hand a lever to shift the trolley to another track where only one person is tied. What would you do?
- What would you do?
- Last night I saw an Australian / Indonesian movie** built around the experiment. A teacher asks his students to select those few they'd take with them into a bomb shelter before a nuclear attack and those they'd leave behind there was no room for. In the course of the movie they make the selection several times, and we watch dramatizations of how the chosen make out in the bomb shelter.
- And how do they make out?
- The first groups, selected to have the most useful skills, not well: they all die. In the last selection the choice is made to include, not the most useful, but the best, the most sympathetic. Even if they have, with little practical skills, little chance of surviving, their time will be spent trying to live the best lives human beings can. Is that what you mean by non-instrumental?
- It is. The Trolley experiment leads participants into accepting the 'bad means to good end' argument: accepting use of present bad means for the sake of an expected future good. It's a variety of the 'the lesser evil'*** argument.
- Choosing a bad means to a good end is less evil that doing nothing and getting the worse end?
- Yes. The argument has big problems: we can't accurately account for consequences; we can't know if choosing the lesser evil will become a habit of bad action, a corrupting model followed by others and oneself; even if good results are foreseen, we don't know if bad results will not soon follow; we don't know how far ahead we have to look, which factors are most important to be taken account of.
- But the simplified situation of the experiment evades those challenges. We know nothing of the past or future of the world of trolley cars, nothing of your character as decision maker or of the character of the six people in the experiment.
- It does. But don't you see?
- The lack of characterization forces upon the participant instrumental thinking, thinking that doesn't respect individuality.
- Yes. I for one do all I can to avoid making a world for myself like that of the trolley experiment. I keep a distance from people I don't care about, who don't know me and I don't know, no matter how useful they might be. I choose to live with those I do know and care about, no matter how great the danger they might represent.
- Even if the people you know and care about are making you their instrument?
- Sometimes even then.
- But what about the Trolley experiment: what would you do?
- What you said was done at the end of the movie. You tell yourself the world you live in is filled with known and unknown, liked and disliked. You make decisions to make your world more known and more likable, make yourself more known and likable, which is another way of saying you aim with your decisions to make yourself and others happy. You never will be in a situation where you know and like nothing about yourself and others. Finding yourself in such a world is proof you have given up on ethical life, you have made your choices on the basis of quantitative predictions of what will make you more wealthy, secure, more powerful.
- When the world you have to decide in is the world of the trolley experiment, you have already left the world of morality, consequently the experiment, not allowing a moral choice, has no relevance to moral decision making?
- Yes. Last night, maybe while you were watching your Australian movie, I watched a video of 'The Battle For Berkeley'.**** Have you heard about it?
- The riots when Trump supporters came to U.C. Berkeley and tried to speak?
- Yes. In the tradition of Neo-Nazies marching in a Jewish neighborhood of New York, conservative speakers scheduled lectures in this place of student protest. Massive resistance from students and others forced cancellation. The conservatives complained, Didn't they too have a right to free speech? No they didn't, not there, answers Sunsara Taylor, veteran of the civil rights movement, co-founder of the "Refuse Fascism"***** organization. Can you guess her argument?
- As the trolley experiment fails to have moral application because it blanks out all individual characteristics of the people involved, so does an absolute application of any rule or law. Laws are only approximations. Unforeseen circumstances arise. More than one law or rule may apply in the same situation, leading to different resolutions. For example, the law does not allow us for the fun of it to cry 'fire!' in a crowded theater, with people trampled to death in the resulting panic. How'd I do?
- You're right on track. She says the right to free speech has never been absolute. She very properly observes that there is also a common law right of self-defense involved. What the conservatives propose, the substance of their speech, is a real danger to the people. Should you let someone come close to you who is already shouting far and wide you have no right to exist? Should you let him try to convince your neighbors or even your family to kill you? The rule of free speech, when free speech has already been widely exercised elsewhere, has no force when weighed against the imperative need for self defense. The application of common law right to self-defense may create a disruption of ordinary rules, demonstrations may disrupt free flow of traffic in a city center, but that too must be accepted by the same argument that in any particular situation different rules carry different weights.
- But how can we be sure we are not manipulating the argument for self-defense, claiming views are dangerous when they are not? Can't the conservatives claim liberal views are a danger to the their people? In fact aren't they now doing exactly this when they and our new president call the press the enemy of the people?
- We rely on our ability to define clearly what is dangerous.
- How? Not every situation is as obvious as shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater.
- In the case of the conservatives trying to speak in Berkeley we rely on our ability to define and identify fascism. Fascism, a ritual movement of a crowd, openly exhibits its ritual origins: it is both violent and convention bound. It is violent in its formation of the crowd identity, attacking outsiders who endanger the people, secretly infiltrating within; and rule bound and conventional, demanding mindless observance of the laws and mores that keep the crowd thus formed together. The same president who with fierce vulgarity incites his crowd to violence, calling on all to smash protesters in the face, this president says in justification, suddenly shy and afraid of open words, that the protesters 'made this gesture, you know, this rude thing, with a finger...' This same president who for fifty years has been breaking laws, promises, contracts, who's been continually cheating, assaulting, defrauding, wants to strictly enforce on others existing and new laws.
- Instead of defining Fascism as a form of government, or a psychology, you say it has a distinctive signature in its relation to violence: in the same person, at different times, violence together with strict obedience to rules.******
- Yes. It is violence that creates and defines the crowd, conformity that unifies it. 
- Maybe we could say that the trolley experiment forces the decision maker into participation in a crowd: the five to be saved are the un-individualized participants in a ritual of exclusion, the one to be sacrificed is the strange and unknown foreigner.

Further Reading:
Conservatives & Totalitarians
Bird Song & Machine Talk
A Study Of The Influence Of Custom On The Moral Judgement
_______________________
* The Narcissist
** After The Dark / The Philosophers, 2013
*** Lesser Evil Voting
**** The Battle For Berkeley
***** Refuse Fascism
****** Watch Yale University historian Timothy Snyder on the two phases of Fascism: Mass killings by nations happen in states with single party control and in states fallen into anarchy.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Narcissist

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- Our new president is derided as 'Narcissist In Chief'. He's a joke.
- How would you define narcissism?
- Being in love with an image of oneself.
- Not in love with oneself, but with an image of oneself? A deliberately looked for or even constructed image of ourselves?
- Yes. It's bizarre. A strange combination of passion and artifice. A passion for artifice.
- Then it would be correct to say you are curious about narcissism?
- Yes.
- And to be curious is to feel pleasure in not knowing?
- I never thought of it like that, but why not?
- Do you imagine a narcissist ever being curious?
- No. They pretend they know everything all the time. They never willingly admit they are wrong.
- Would you agree then that a narcissist is someone who is afraid of not knowing, so always tells himself and the world that he does know?
- Again, why not? But in focusing on knowledge aren't we straying from what people usually mean by narcissist: someone who is in love with himself?
- To be curious about what you don't know, would you say it is necessary to have some confidence you eventually will understand?
- Yes.
- And to have that confidence, you must have in the past, after being confused, reached understanding, made discoveries?
- Yes.
- But to study, discover, understand requires some stability of circumstances. Remove the stability, wouldn't what before was pleasurable confusion now be a threatening unknown?
- The narcissist is someone who, previously secure in having learned how to learn, finding mystery a pleasure, now in a state of instability can't learn, so fears not knowing?
- Yes. Both curiosity, and its failure in narcissism, are relations to knowledge.
- How do we get from fear of not knowing to love of an image of oneself?
- By knowing something about yourself that tells you you have no reason to fear.
- How is that knowledge love?
- It isn't. It's relief, looking at yourself from a position outside yourself.
- How can we do that?
- Divide ourselves in two?
- Yes.
- Through the experience of seeing ourselves in another person's eyes. The narcissist tries to give himself an appearance that, in his imagination of someone looking on, would represent maximum security from fear. The narcissist learns how to make that appearance to which he is, through the intermediary of others, the real audience. The picture of self has to be continually remade as the world changes. Lacking real knowledge of the world, as opposed to knowledge of that part of the world that reflects an image of themselves, narcissists need over and over go back to work remaking a secure image.*
- You mean narcissists seek power?
- Yes. We don't usually call them insane unless they are very wrong about others' perception of the themselves and the extent of their power.
- I'm beginning to recognize our President. He doesn't seem to want to do anything with the new powers he's acquired except admire himself for having them and for his having had the skill to acquire them. Come to think of it, can't we say a narcissist like him does have curiosity about himself, I mean about what new grandiosity of image he legitimately does have some knowledge how to produce?
- But is this the same kind of curiosity?
- Why wouldn't it be?
- When we are curious about the world we move from a position of security to, if we come to know the world, increased sense of security from having new knowledge of the world. The curiosity of the narcissist arises out of fear of losing power, from a constant need of reassurance.
- So it isn't really curiosity.
- No. We use other words.
- Obsession. Fixation.
- Correct. Still there is a relation to knowledge, a need for knowledge, but from a perceived position of weakness rather than strength.  A narcissist has this relation of fixation or obsession to all three basic tasks of knowledge a human being faces: the need to master the tools for living in the world, to learn how to acquire food and shelter and safety; the need to learn how to get along with other people; the need to master our own passions so we can get along with people and have the peace of mind needed to learn enough about the world to feel curious about learning more. We must be safe first if we are going to be curious, to enjoy learning to perform these three tasks. The narcissist, living in insecurity, instead will seek to establish a sense of power in one or all three tasks.
- How does our new president do this, if he does?
- He most definitely does.
- All three?
- Certainly, all three ways an individual establishes a relation to himself instead of to the world: being in love with his reasoning; being in love with his ability to manipulate other people; being in love with his ability to satisfy all his desires without fear of consequences. Our President likes to talk about how he is very smart, he has the best words; how he's very rich and powerful and can make deals no one else can; how he can grab pussies and get away with it.
- But if you are right about this being what narcissism is, isn't the whole of our society more or less narcissistic? Everyone trying to impress themselves and all who look on with the extent of their satisfied passions, their achieved ambition, their worldly cleverness?
- People live insecure lives,** have to sell themselves into the part-time slavery of employment. When you can't make your own decisions how to live you can't enjoy learning to control yourself, understand others, or know the world. The only relief you know is in exercising your powers to satisfy your passions, manipulate the people around you, and make the world your instrument.***

Further Reading:
The Character Of Donald Trump
Political Correctness
The Show
________________________
* Having no sense of self that is not a show made to the public, narcissists have no sense of privacy, they have nothing which must be held in reserve from what is shown the public.
** 'A life in which we’re all alone, alone facing the necessity for each one to make a living, house oneself, feed oneself, realize one’s potential, and attend to one’s health, by oneself. Disgust with the miserable form of life of the metropolitan individual—scrupulous distrust / refined, smart skepticism / shallow, ephemeral loves / resulting extreme sexualization of every encounter / then the periodic return to a comfortable and desperate separation / constant distraction, hence ignorance of oneself, hence fear of oneself, hence fear of the other.' ('To Our Friends', The Invisible Committee)
*** See: Free Speech Against Free Speech

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

20 Lessons from the 20th Century (Timothy Snyder)

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“When Hitler first began to make a name for himself—which was in the early 1920’s—nobody took him seriously, because he seemed a buffoon, uneducated, so crude and ultimately, unlikeable that the elite, the intellectuals couldn’t imagine that this person would ever become a threat to the entire German, Austrian and ultimately global culture.”
– George Prochnik
12.12.2016

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

Timothy Snyder is the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University

© Author

Nothing Doing



- It's been a few weeks again. What have you been doing?
- Nothing.
- Doing nothing, or nothing you want to talk about? Fine, don't answer. Talking about doing nothing would be doing something, would be an expression falsifying what it expressed. I get it. But do you think it is even possible to do nothing? Like the capitalist is always doing something and never rests, the Buddhist in his monastery sits absolutely still, receiving the world and thinking to do nothing with what is received.
- I've seen plenty of capitalists take their doing for the sake of doing to the limit, so why not Buddhists taking their doing nothing to the limit?
- Well, I don't believe anyone has ever seen such people. Have you?
- I've seen some getting close.
- You have? Good. Tell me about them.
- I have already, many times. Remember the supermarket in Westwood where all those who live with no place to live go to pass the night hours, the dining area under the sign that claims this store is "The Happiest Place On Earth," an outrageous lie much in the style of our new president? To fight back against this invasion of people with no other place to go the supermarket hired a security company who brought in a cadre of obese black women from the South Central L.A. ghetto to do crowd control. When that didn't work, they closed the seating area between 10 pm and 5 am, the market remaining open twenty four hours a day. But they kept coming, those doing their best living with no place to live, spending the nights as they did before they found this supermarket refuge on sidewalk pavements or benches, on church steps or in the bushes on the grounds of the university, in the morning filing back in to the corporate happiest place on earth. The insane, talking back to the voices in their heads, dancing around and raving about this and that, or standing immobile like statues, these the security forces, concerned for their own safety left alone so long as they didn't destroy anything. But if anyone, chronically sleep deprived, sitting quietly let their eyes close more than half a second the obese guards would waddle over and shake the culprits awake, shouting "no sleeping allowed!" then making as rapid a retreat as their obesity allowed, cackling with laughter, soliloquizing 'What a place I work in, what a job I have!' They were so famous that a UCLA fraternity made it part of their initiation to send candidates into the dining area by pairs, shouting obscenities, getting themselves chased about the store by the obese ghetto guards, finally making their way out watching themselves on the video monitor above the door give the camera the finger.
- A Buddhist does his nothing by strict training of mind and body to stay still. How can you say that that group of idlers is doing anything comparable?
- They are disciplined in their own way. They don't drink, smoke or take drugs. They can't, if they are to survive their dangerous way of life. They might take some money from the government for food, the majority don't, but all of them think too highly of their independence than to allow themselves to be locked in institutions for the night in exchange for the gift of a bed in a room of beds occupied by drug addicts, the crazy, the alcoholic, the sick, and the dying coughing their lungs out.
- Come on. The world they receive as they sit dozing in their chairs under the sign locating them in the happiest place on earth, that world is the Internet, right? They all have phones with WiFi. That very store sells the phones for less than 10 dollars.
- It does. But think about it. What is a greater danger to a monk's enlightenment than his vanity at his own superiority and advancement? Receiving the world through the intermediary of the Internet these doers of nothing can't easily come to think they themselves are responsible for the world they see at their ease.
- You can't be serious.
- They are not on the Internet all day as you might expect. They really are doing nothing and want to do nothing, and they are doing it without benefit of any authority above them, or even any real ability to rely on each other or contact with anyone outside. Because of this they do really escape the vanity of the monk in the monastery. Not all of them, of course. You find those not remotely spiritual who like the ghetto guards, feeling they never had a chance, seek to exonerate themselves and blame others for their undeserved suffering.
- And those at the supermarket don't suffer?
- They do, but take little notice.
- But you can't possibly admire them. Like the capitalists are always doing for the sake of doing, never taking a rest, your friends at the supermarket, not receiving much of the world's truth, have nothing to teach the rest of us in our task to manage our lives of doing so we can make our way back back to rest.
- I never said I admired them. I gave them as an example of doing nothing.
- But why should we care? Their doing nothing is only a knack, doesn't involve self knowledge, any control of body or mind?
- Have you heard the argument that the election of our new president might indirectly be a good thing and move us forward because he brings into the open the falsity of capitalism's claim to serve democracy and prosperity for any but the wealthy?
- I've heard the argument. Do you agree?
- No. If the situation eventually teaches us anything it will be no more than a political and economic lesson. We might be led to a new politics and economics, away from worship and hoarding of property and towards voluntary sharing and collective decision making. But once there in our advancement would we have any reason to think the new state of affairs will last?** It looked to us like we'd have continuous progress in our freedoms, but the latest improvements in racial and sexual equality came at the cost of economic slavery and political impotence. If there is a progress of civilization it more likely is a progress not in the way we do things but in the way we don't.
- In the way we do nothing?
- In the way we receive the world when we do nothing. Progress in ideas, spiritual progress. Some have claimed the thousands of monasteries that used to be in Tibet, the hundred thousand monks, were a battery of stored spirituality kept in trust for the world, held for when it was ready to receive it. Could it be that the million in this country who have no place to live may come to play the same role in our lives? They are not vagabonds looking for adventure, they cant no dogma about their spirituality and what they are doing, or rather not doing. The subject doesn't interest them. They've got it managed.
- And what about you?
- What about me?
- Have you got it managed, your doing nothing? Ok, fine, don't answer. Don't think you're fooling me with this nonsense.

Further Reading:
About Buddhism
_____________________
* Westwood Stories
** Lesser Evil Voting

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Conservatives & Totalitarians




1. The United States & Totalitarianism

- A totalitarian nation controls all of individual life in the name of perfecting social arrangements.
- Doesn't sound much like the United States.
- Another way to define totalitarianism is by the practice of continuous, unending ritual*. We are threatened by the communists, the Jews, the capitalists, we must be vigilant in eradicating these threats. We see ourselves as weak, we perform a ritual according to the known procedures, and come out feeling stronger.
- What are the known procedures?
- Depends on the country. War making, conceived as response to threat to security. Or exchange of goods and services between parties defined as adversaries in an economic transaction. Ritual in its basic form is an occasional means of recovery. Practiced too often, like a drug too often had recourse to, ritual becomes addictive**, for the same reason: our ability to lead ordinary lives is lessoned when not practiced, and with less ability the world become more inhospitable, making the security delivered by ritual more attractive.
- So countries limitlessly make wars, expand the realm of trade.
- Yes. Doing for the sake of doing***. The state institutions, originally the servant of individuals, become an end in themselves, administrators of the settled, unvarying practice of continuous ritual.
- Money making, war making.
- When this continuous ritual is turned away from foreign practice and turned inward to the state itself we have totalitarianism. The elements within us opposing the trade of goods and services, or opposing the ideal society of sharing we are in the way of perfecting, have to be eradicated.
- The actual achievement of the society of sharing, communism, or the actual achievement of free markets, capitalism, isn't important then, only the application of ritual to assigned obstacles?
- The United States is no more a country of free trade**** than the Soviet Union was a country of sharing.
- Still private life is very free in the United States. It is nothing like totalitarian countries in that respect. But maybe you'll say we're on the way there, with increasing inequality of wealth, monopoly ownership of means of communication and natural resources.
- Monopoly serves expansion by controlling markets. The danger is that the monopolists, with political power bought with their economic power, will not be satisfied only with economic ritual turned within, satisfied with the power to force everyone, like it or not, into transactions with them; that labeling holdouts threats to the nation, as truly they are obstacles to continuous practice of economic ritual, they begin to perform continuous rituals of war against them, step up practice within the country of what they have long been practicing outside. That economic and war expansion share the same form of continuous ritual encourages the transition from one to another, and this is true of all relations internal and external, economic and war making: between external war, internal terror, economic empire and internal monopoly.
____________________


2. Conservatives & Totalitarians

- We said that we don't see any reason to think there is a direction to history*, of one form of government inevitably following another; that trying to institute any form of government as an end leads to treating individual lives as means to that end, leads to the idea of efficiency of means to the end and so leads to individuals being sacrificed to the idea of efficiency.
- I remember.
- If we concentrate our efforts on building the state, we end up crushing the individual. What if we start from the individual? Can we build up to an idea of the state that won't be destructive of individuality?
- We tried something like that already when we argued that rather than describing the mental world in the terminology of the physical we should do it the other way around, describe the physical world in terms of the mental.**
- A government is a thing like a body is a thing, a thing that moves, whose moves are repetitive, repetition that maintains, in response to a changing world, the thing in the same shape. A government is a sort of artificial body.
- Yes. So let's see how far we can take this, starting from the state and working back to the individual. We see an approach of totalitarianism in our country with its new president. Russia and East European countries are already half way there. We know that totalitarianism is maintained by isolating individuals from each other. Isolated individuals can't easily organize a resistance. But we don't see how totalitarianism actually produces that isolation. We can follow how shared support of totalitarianism produces a crowd through shared passions, but how the non-adherents end up isolated from each other, end up a set of isolated individuals, we have no explanation for. Whereas we can see how changes in the status of individual conduct can produce totalitarianism.
- We can? I know your definition of totalitarianism: acting out on the national stage a ritual of collective rebirth. Our country is weak where it once was strong. There is an enemy within, allied with external enemies. With violence we will drive them out and bring on a national revival of our greatness. Where does individuality, the mental explaining the physical, come in?
- One of the myths about capitalism is that it is about work; hard, selfless work. It absolutely is not. Or not for the capitalists. Selfish work is for the employees, who literally lose sense of themselves as they slave for the sake of their employers. Who, far from having a will to selfless work in what they do, begin with a sense that they institute, they force their choice upon the world how to invest their money for the sake of making profit. They feel a need to continually set out on a risk-taking activity, to set out from a state of wealth and security to a state of insecurity, relying on a mysterious process called the free market economy not directly in their control. They know some rules which in the past have worked to achieve profit. Some of these rules are ways of working, techniques of production for example. But it can be the case, as it is in our times, that the rules for market behavior can direct lying and cheating aimed at achieving the same goal, profit. The capitalist has no preference how the dangerous ocean of the economy is navigated across; the period of risk passes in a sort of gambler's trance, and what occurs, whether careful management or fraud, monopoly, collusion with and bribery of the government, or simply lucky choices, is left behind and forgotten as a renewed state of security is achieved.
- OK, we have talked about this too. The capitalist approaches his money making as self-instituted ritual. The more he practices his ritual of rebirth in renewed profit, the more quickly insecurity returns: this comes of living in a controlled, artificial world, knowing only how to make money and knowing nothing about how to live in the world outside that ritual activity; only in the renewed practice of money making does the capitalist feel he has a grip on life. The economy is a mystery having the power to constantly generate profit for anyone willing the play the role of capitalist and submit himself to it.
- In the case of the United States the individual changes himself deliberately through ritual in three ways: politically, in threats or actual violence against internal enemies and external allies; economically, in the capitalist's submitting himself to the mystery of the free market; and to this list we add spiritually: we have sinned but we can be reborn passing through a trance state of religious ecstasy where god's work is being done on us, reborn into strength leaving our old weak selves behind.
- So then we're saying now that the capitalist and the born-again religious are attracted to the totalitarian form of government as politics, public life sharing a form with what they are doing in their private lives?
- Exactly. It calls upon a fundamental behavior already being successfully practiced. So does conservative politics, the government interfering with the individual as little as possible for the sake of allowing room for individual responsibility in the inception of ritual, taking the business risk or baptismal plunge.
- Which explains the otherwise strange alliance of conservatives, who demand least possible government interference in private life with totalitarians, who submit to total government interference in private life.
- Now all these formally identical ritual behaviors isolate each individual from all other individuals who do not take part in their particular rituals. A stranger at a cafe does not have the script to your personal spiritual revival and will definitely not be happy being the victim of your lying and cheating economic rebirth in profit taking.
- Before totalitarian politics locks individuals away from each other individuals already already are leaving each other alone.
- Yes. I think if we want to see totalitarianism coming we should look for rapid increase in the isolation of individuals. I see it already in Los Angeles. Waiting in line at the market the cashiers tell me not to talk to the other customers as it slows down the line. At Starbucks, for a change getting into a heated discussion - well, actually, one customer is trying to stop another from talking to me! - the manager steps in with, 'break it up or you all have to leave.' You know, I help kids from a couple of families with their reading and writing English. One of them is a little boy. Here's how our last conversation ended:

- Rex?
- Yes.
- You're ugly.
- Not too much.
- You have grey hair.
- What's wrong with that?
- You're old.
- What's wrong with that?
- You're going to die.
- And you being 9 years old think death is for other people. What else?
- You have fur on your hands.
- Monstrous. What else?
- You have a big nose.
- True. What else?
- You have pointy teeth.
- Like a vampire. So. You've been studying me. Any other discoveries?
- You are a bad influence.
- Who told you that? 
- No one.
- Someone. It's not a word you use.
- What happened to your wife? Why don't you get back together?
- I don't know where she is.
- Why don't you look for her?
- She doesn't want me to.
- Why not?
- She moved on.

- What's with the boy?
- He already speaks two other languages with his parents. English practice seems unnecessary to him. I was hired to help him with his reading: he would guess the words from the general shape of the letters rather than sound them out completely. For him that was all the attention reading deserved. He confided in me that our twice a week one hour sessions were the worst part of his life.
- He was trying to get you to quit.
- Or trying to take revenge. He saw my failure in ritual performance: I don't take the initiative with my appearance or my marriage. I got old and am going to die without getting anywhere. But despite these failures, he finds that he himself fails to pin me down. I pay a great deal of questioning attention to his attack of words, but let pass over my head his attempt to construct his own little totalitarian state with me, he taking the role of the employer with initiative, I forced into the role of the irritant outsider, an employee forced into the role of worker without initiative. My flourishing in the forgotten regions of ritual transition where operate the spiritual, economic, national mechanisms of rebirth fascinates him. Before he knows it he has completed his days reading aloud.
- Do you enjoy teaching under those circumstances? If I taught I wouldn't let my students disrespect me.
- And if you enjoyed it?
- The disrespect?
- The teaching despite disrespect. The pleasure derived from rituals of rebirth is what Plato called pleasure in the relief of pain. Only the pleasure of knowledge doesn't require prior pain. Ritual requires forgetting, acquisition of knowledge requires remembering, collecting together all that has been experienced seen differently now something is known of it. Individuals isolated from each other in their self instituting political, economic, and spiritual rituals become, as we said, the more ritual is practiced, the more removed from the world outside of ritual. They can make other people the objects of their rituals, they can take pleasure in subjecting other people to their violence, but can never get to know them, never have a story to tell about what happens when lives come in contact with each other.

Further Reading:
Compassion & The Story
____________________
* Lesser Evil Voting
** See: Noam Chomsky & Mental Things

Monday, March 27, 2017

Trump's Lies

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1.

- Trump's lies are no big deal, his people say. All politicians lie. But his lying is different. His lies are amazingly frequent, often the opposite to what he himself has been recorded as saying, often obviously untrue.
- How do you think he gets away with telling lies that are obviously untrue?
- His supporters believe them anyway.
- Do they?
- Don't they?
- Trump's lies are different from other politicians' in that they aren't, strictly speaking, meant to be believed. His supporters enter along with him into a world changed by his lying. The dupe of a confidence man wants to believe, wants to enter into a better world, is co-creator of that world. It is not what is being offered that entices, but rather entering in the company of another into a wonderful world where good things are coming. Trump's supporters, buyers of his sales pitch, want to join him in his creation of a fictitious world. The election results include three million fraudulent voters, The biggest inauguration crowd ever. It didn't rain on his swearing in. His predecessor wiretapped him. Belief in these lies is not important. It is not the picture being sold, but the picture-making. The bad reality of rain, doubtful popularity, damaging secrets is transformed by lies into a preferred reality; like the con man he is Trump offers something tangible, a promise of increased wealth and security. But what closes the sale is his supporters' eagerness to identify with him, share in the virtuosity of his transformation of reality.


2.

- The political philosopher Wendy Brown offers a different explanation. About neoliberalism, defined by her as the application of free market economic practices to all areas of life, public and private, she writes:
As neoliberalism wages war on public goods and the very idea of politics, including citizenship beyond membership, it dramatically thins public life without killing politics. Struggles remain over power, hegemonic values, resources, and future trajectories. This persistence of politics amid destruction of public life and especially educated public life, combined with the marketization of the political sphere, is part of what makes contemporary politics peculiarly unappealing and toxic - full of ranting and posturing, emptied of intellectual seriousness, pandering to an uneducated and manipulable electorate and a scandal hungry corporate media. Neoliberalism generates a condition of politics absent democratic institutions that would support a democratic public and all that such public represents at its best: informed passion, respectful deliberation, aspirational sovereignty, sharp containment of powers that would overrule or undermine it.* 
Education, or protection of the environment, is justified only if it brings more productivity. Marriage is entered into only if it is a good investment of personal resources, if it raises one's "human capital". According to Wendy Brown, neoliberalism is responsible for the open lying we see practiced by politicians. Whatever works to do, should be done, even when what is done is against the very principle of free market economic efficiency, for example when the government props up failing banks.
- That was efficient neoliberal action for the class of people in control of the government.
- Exactly. In the free market neoliberal competition for power in politics the bail out of banks is a proper economic result since it represents the success of the interests of the most efficient competitor. The speech of politicians is also judged economically: whatever works to say should be said, whether true or not, despite the fact that lies have to reduce the efficiency of governmental deliberation for assisting the economy. The "open lying" argument draws from both Foucault and Marx. In neoliberalism, the choice of individuals how to live their lives, and how public life should be arranged, and what the state should be responsible for, all these decisions are taken away, replaced by technical considerations of how to manage relations to others: how to present oneself and what to invest in oneself to get a job, how to attract a economically profitable mate. The state itself has no responsibility to the individual, its only function support of the economy. Individuals tied up in these calculations of economic relations to each other risk their very survival if they dare consider how otherwise individual life and public life may be lived, consequently they are no threat to the power of government. That's Foucault. Marx describes the government itself as power struggle between classes, the employed and employers. Like the individuals who can choose how economically to perfect their lives have no choice and no idea how to live other than economically, so workers, having freedom to choose, sometimes, which employer to sell their time to, and which consumer object to buy with their wages, if they have any, are unaware they are slaves. They suffer from the loss of their freedom to choose what and when to produce, who dispose of it to, and how. They suffer from being in an inhuman relation to their employers, from being a mere instrument of another's profit making. In neoliberalism, employees who are slaves to employers in their work lives, in their private lives become slaves to themselves, objects to their own entrepreneurship.**
- Our politicians can openly lie to voters both because all of public life outside of the economic, no longer the object of choice, has become invisible, and because within the economic only the free market is seen, war of the rich against the poor also is invisible.
- That is her argument. Politicians by lying are efficiently selling themselves to voters who know nothing more of life than economic efficiency so don't mind the lying, even approve of it. They are unaware that the total economizing of life increases possibilities of profit for the rich who maximize their own individual life economies by lying in order to take control of government management of that economy of life. Do you still claim that voters knew Trump was lying and willingly went along with him, hoping to be taken with him into the world of political success and its rewards his lies gave him access to?
- They knew he was lying, but didn't believe he was lying to them. They believed, it appears so far rightly, that he would at least try to do some of what he said: his class loyalties didn't let him keep his promise to get bankers out of government, but he did try to ban Muslims from entry to the United States and says he's taken the first steps to build his wall against Mexicans. As acceptable to voters is their own lies in the marketing of themselves in private life, so is acceptable the lies of politicians in the marketing of themselves in the public arena. But there is a limit to their lying.
- Which is?
- Where deals have been made to cooperate within the ties of socially sanctioned roles, lying is definitely not acceptable. Think of a husband's lying to his wife, an employee's lying to his employer. If you still don't believe me take a look at the video*** TV comedian Steven Colbert made of Trump's address to a woman's organization in which sound engineers substituted for Trump's crowd pleasing praise of women's superior intelligence the recording of him boasting about his "pussy grabbing". Trump could, as he said, kill someone in the center of New York and not lose his supporters. He could commit a crime in public life, but he could not get away with offending against the deals that underlie the stability of class relations within corporations, families, or his own deal made with voters in his election campaign.
- You win.

Further Reading:
The Show
Homework For Serial Killers
Thomas & Little Man
___________________
* Undoing The Demos, Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution, 2015
** As employees are instruments to their employers' profits, so each social role, not in the service of some larger good, not in the service of love, beauty, or truth, is an instrument, a facilitator to the practice of related social roles: teacher/student, husband/wife, buyer/seller. That which can be measured for efficiency in serving other roles can be measured for efficiency in earning wages or making profits, and be assigned monetary value in accord with efficiency. The conjunction of specialized role in personal life with slavery in work life is what opened the way for the human species to meet the strange fate of neoliberalism.
 *** Trump Addresses The Women's Empowerment Forum

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lesser Evil Voting

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- The other day I came across a remarkable document.
- Go on.
- An Eight Point Brief For Lesser Evil Voting, published on the Internet site of Noam Chomsky last year before the election. It argues that since none of the good candidates have a chance of winning we should vote for evil Clinton because evil Trump would probably cause more harm.
- 'Probably'.
- Yes. You wonder how that probability has been determined. The answer: based on Trump and Clinton's stated intentions.
- As if Noam Chomsky for fifty years has not been pointing out how politicians do not act on their stated intentions.
- He with his co-author suggests that the Vietnam war could have been shortened if Lessor Evil voting had been practiced.
- But how can we know? Is history a science where given initial conditions we can make predictions of what will come next?
- There appears to some to be a feedback mechanism in operation in what we can call material history.
- As opposed to what? Spiritual history?
- We'll get to that. Apparently every fifty or hundred years in recent history a revolutionary crises occurs, where the rich take more and more from the poor until the poor feel they have nothing much left to lose. After the revolutionary attempt, the poor recover some resources, and the cycle starts over again. There are also smaller cycles of boom and bust in financial speculation, and larger cycles of rise and fall of empires, where having robbed the world the leaders rob or in wars express disregard for the lives of the led of their own country, and even larger cycles are claimed, where wealthy civilization is followed by dark ages followed by a renaissance.
- But as far as I know these theories are based on so little information that no exact predictions can reasonably be made. Or am I wrong?
- You're not wrong. There is a complementary proposal that goes along with that of cyclic history, that of the influence of the Great Man. Without Lenin, it is argued, the Soviet Union would not have formed or lasted.
- On what science is that claim based?
- None. An intuition of probability.
- Since the Soviet Union turned out to be not anything new, not socialism, but only state capitalism, what difference did he really make? One kind of slave society was replaced by another. Not to mention that another Great Man might have come along if Lenin hadn't. If great men don't really go against the direction of history, and material history is not going anywhere but circles, perhaps there is a spiritual history: the progress of enlightened ideas, as Kant and others have claimed?
- How are the ideas "stored" in the material world they are supposed to guide? What is the cause and effect relation, how do ideas work on, work their way into the material stuff of history?
- Haven't a clue.
- Perhaps they are not stored there? The problem with the Lesser Evil argument is that any such compromise loses the power of ideas to affect history, reduces them to actions lost in the meaningless cyclic repetitions of material history.
- What then? Our ideas float above the material world, as our thoughts somehow float above our bodies? How do they, as you put it, get stored in history so they can accumulate?
- Chomsky and his co-author say that voting for a third party candidate that is better but probably won't win is mere self expression, an empty act of vanity or narcissism. I'd say rather it is a moral example made.
- Ideas persist because the are embodied in examples of ethical actions that are emulated.
- Yes.
- So history itself doesn't go anywhere, and great men don't escape its material cycles, but ideas do.
- Maybe do.
- Maybe do. No exact science here. But if this argument is correct moral compromise is not indicated as a practical choice.
- The spiritual is more practical.
- So it would seem.

Further Reading:
Miracles
_______________
* An Eight Point Brief For Lesser Evil Voting

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Thomas & Little Man

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- 'Here, take a look at all this'. The high school student I tutor slides across the table a thick stack of papers. It's a new assignment: write a personal essay. 'I'm lost', he says. 'I'm not even sure what a personal essay is. You can help me with it.
- I didn't know you tutored.
- On and off for decades. I've written about it on occasion in personal essays of my own. As a matter of fact that is what I proposed to my student: I'd talk him through an essay as I composed one, there at table in his house. I flipped through the pages of instructions and sample essays included in the pile of papers provided by his teacher, getting a feel for my competition, then moved back before me the meal of Indian food his mother usually serves me when I come over to their house so I could eat as I talked. According to his teacher, I , a personal essay is a story from your life together with ideas. Which did he think went first, I ask my student, story or idea? Was story to illustrate idea, or idea develop out of story? No idea, he answered. Which was it? The way I do it, I said, neither, or rather a little of both. Not beginning with story, interpreting it with ideas, nor beginning with ideas, illustrating them with story. I begin with something that has happened, happened obscurely, an episode or incident. The happening or episode or incident isn't quite a story and doesn't immediately suggest any idea. I can't see where it comes from and where its going. It's meaning isn't clear.
- Then what?
- As I tell the story see what develops. Here commences my essay, as recited to my student. I'd biked down from UCLA to Westwood after the library closed. It was almost midnight. Starbucks was closing too. Coming out I saw Thomas, or rather, Thomas & Little Man, his contact ID as he'd entered it in my phone. Little Man was the little dog he cradled in his arms as he sat in cafes, looking out the window or tapping telephone messages. Mostly Little Man slept in his arms, stretched out, lying on his back, legs stiffly extended strait up. 'Look at his little paws', Thomas would say, 'just like a bear. I love Little Man. And he loves me! Don't you love me, little doggie? Yes you do, yes you do.' Thomas is in love with his dog. He is middle-aged, well dressed in clean new clothes: chinos, button down shirt, corduroy jacket. He strikes up conversations at cafes and offers his services as movie or music producer.
- He isn't really a producer?
- He's in love with his dog, has no car, usually doesn't order anything at the cafes, his phone has a broken screen...
- Did he offer you a job?
- He did: manager of a band on tour. I accepted.
- And?
- I'm waiting. Following out through the door of Starbucks was another man of the same age in a leather motorcycle jacket, electric guitar hanging from his neck along with a portable amplifier. He start strumming a pounding rhythm. Thomas introduces us, asks if I'd like to go with them to Denny's, open 24 hours. At Denny's I'm the only one who orders: two dollar stack of two pancakes. No beverage. Tell me about himself, I say to the Rock 'n' Roller. Yes, says Thomas, tell him about your trip to Los Vegas. He was tired of the scene in L.A., so he caught a bus. By chance there was a porn convention going on. He used to be in the porn business, so he went over and talked his way in. He got completely drunk with other attendees, found himself the next morning lying in the street with money and ID gone. For the next two weeks he sat in front of slot machines dropping tokens exchanged for free coupons, drinking free drinks. Nights he hide himself in some out of the way corner of the casinos. Finally he'd had enough, called a friend to send him a ticket back to L.A. And then what? I asked. He was a musician? Yes, he'd made dozens of albums, they're all over the internet. What happened to his band? He had a band, didn't he? Yes, several, but like he had they all moved on. Where'd he move on to? Acting in, then making porno movies. It was good business. Then he went on to making movies. Making shorts. Then he made two full length features. What happened with them? Oh, that didn't matter. Why not? Had I seen the movie, 'The Producers'? A down and out producer of plays decides to raise the costs of a play many times over from many different people. All he had to do was see to it that the play was so bad it failed so the duplicate investors didn't ask for any return. Whenever he ran out of money, the rock 'n' roller said, he'd find someone to invest ten or twenty thousand. How long could did that go on? I ask. Years, he says. And then, when those years passed? He lived with a woman down in Culver City. How long? Ten years. Doing what? Sex, drugs, rock n roll. They went through a hundred thousand dollar inheritance she got from her aunt. And then? It was over. He wished I saved a little as a stake to get going again. Why was it over? Can't he contact her? What about his band mates, movie makers he worked with? No, he can't. He cheated them all. That's the way it went. Who sent him money for the ticket from Las Vegas? Can't he get more? No. You still have your guitar. Oh, that. He's had it only a few days. At a casino show he sneaked into at intermission and took the opportunity to run up on stage and grab the guitar the musician left behind. What's it worth? Only a couple hundred. He's cold, he said, And starving. He reaches over to the next table to grab a leftover pancake and swallow it down. He stands up, says goodbye to me, glances at Thomas, for the moment busy talking business with the rap singer and his girl at the table on the other side. Where's he going, I ask the rock n roller? To spend the night at the parking structure where it's warm.
- Myself, I would stake my life on the life of these characters having any meaning at all. What did your student say?
- 'Wow'. He asked me what I thought meeting and listening to these guys meant. I had no idea. But there was definitely a feeling, a mood.
- What mood?
- There was something, something suggestive in these characters opening up about without shame their lying and cheating. I'd been thinking for a while about our new President's shameless lying, wondering how he was getting away with it.
- He isn't. He gets caught all the time.
- Yet no one seems to care. Like the President, these two lie and cheat and are caught out time after time by friends and associates but somehow they are getting by on charm.
- I think you are right about the President. He even makes a joke of his lying. Unemployment he says is 25 percent. Or it's 50 percent. Or maybe even 60. The news media he says is producing fake news, and now today, he says, he has a new name for it, 'Very Fake News'. After his victory, hearing at a rally the joyous call to lock up his opponent, he says, smiling, that, they understand, was for before the election, now is a different story. The crowd roars. His supporters eat it up.
- And these are the very people who complain about political correctness, relativism, who express themselves as offended by the demand to treat people in every way of life equally. They say they are being called upon them to lie, to believe there is no fixed human nature, so no better or worse conduct for that nature. Indignant though they are at political correctness' demand they lie, they worship at the alter of their President's lies.
- Yes. And you know what else?
- What?
- They know he is lying and don't care. They like his lying. This sort of lying is not a false statement about the world they are called upon to accept. This is not lying about human nature. It is lying as a tool, creating a picture of the world not made to be imposed on themselves but on others. It is a salesman's lying, a tool used aiming at a goal, making use of language's infinite possibilities to make statements to build a picture of the world that suits a purpose.
- The president announced the other day he was moving into 'full sales' mode to sell his health care plan.
- You see. When the President lies, he is not making a claim that human nature is infinitely malleable. but painting a picture of the world that changes the world.
- But why do his supporters believe he is not lying to them too? After all, once in office he's filled his cabinet with the very "Washington Insiders" and bankers, dwellers of the swamp he promised to drain. He fulfills his promise to replace the previous president's health care law, but his new plan lowers taxes for the rich, not exactly in tune with his claim to be on the side of ordinary people.
- The President has kept certain promises, those that initiate what we've called fascist ritual.
- Identify foreigners as the enemy which if fought with violence our weakness will be gone and we will be born again in strength.
- Yes. The President as promised has moved to expel illegal immigrants, he has moved to withdraw from international trade deals. Why has he kept these promises when he's shown his willingness to break his other promises? Is it not because together with his supporters he is a participant himself in these rituals of rebirth? He's established a bond with his people, found security in the speech-making and campaign rallies, so much so after he was elected he held an additional campaign rally, supposedly the first in his four year distant battle for re-election. And now, what about where we started? Thomas and Little Man, the Rock 'n' Roll Pornographer Vagabond Thief. Is their secret like the President's, do they form deep, ritualistic bonds with all the openly lied to people brought into their pretend professions? Does that make more sense of them, round out their stories? With that question the essay concludes.

Further Reading:
Political Correctness

Friday, March 3, 2017

Are You Real?



1.

- Have you heard about this argument coming out of Oxford University supposed to prove we live in a computer simulation?
- No. Are you interested in such stupid ideas?
- Definitely. How better to learn how we go wrong than by studying how we believe what can't be right? You agree that thinking we are in a computer simulation is obviously wrong?
- Apparently not to some people. Let's hear it.
- Probably there are many worlds of people who like to make computer games. Probably there are many worlds. Probably in most of them computer simulations have achieved a perfection we can't imagine. Probably each world produces many games. Since there are probably many more worlds of people in games than worlds of game-making people, probably we are in a computer simulation and are computer simulations ourselves.
- And what do you make of this Oxford professor's argument?
- We need to look for probabilities because we are supposed not to be able to tell whether we are simulations or real. But then, what difference does it make whether we are real or not if our experience of being real is identical to not being real?
- The people who are playing us might stop playing the game.
- And god might drown us all in a flood. We're dealing with a myth. Myths make visible what is invisible, thoughts and feelings become living beings acting the the world. What would you say is expressed by this myth of our being in a computer simulation?
- If we are in a computer simulation our consciousness is an illusion too.
- It would have to be.
- And we can't tell whether or not we are really conscious? Consciousness is only an illusion?
- That's the argument. There's no difference between being made by aliens as simulation and being made by a god. The god is real, the aliens are real, and we are not, we are simulations. We are something less than gods and alien game players. We are said to have made a mistake, to be deceived in our thinking about our place in the world. But, I think, those who make the argument want to say something different, say more than that we are ignorant about our place in the world.
- What are they trying to say?
- That we have unjustified pretensions about our meaning, our significance. That in fact we don't have meaning because we are mere signs, symbols. We are representations, pictures, imitations. But though we may not know when and how we are deceived in our perception and conclusions about the world, we do know the difference between representation and what is represented. A basic definition of consciousness is representing ourselves to ourselves. It is something we do. We know when we do it, have done it. We can be deceived about the world, but not in making this distinction between what we do when we are conscious of ourselves and what we do when we perceive and make judgments about the world.
- So you answer the alien worlds argument by saying we can be deceived about the world because our knowledge is in the form of probabilities that this kind of thing will come after that kind of thing. Representation, however, is not a matter of laws of probable relation between kinds of things, but of individual experience. When we make a science of our individual experience, discover and test laws of action and consequence, we are the world we test with our action and remake with our action.
- Since we can feel the difference between illusion in the world and representation to ourselves, we have no reason to consider consciousness to be illusion and ourselves a mere simulation in a computer. Do you know where I think this idea comes from? You wrote* about blame that the more we are caught up in social role, the less freedom we have. And since mistakes are made by doing what the group wants rather than what we as individuals know is right, the larger the mistake, the more tightly caught up in the group, the less freedom, and the less blame. Blame is a social act. Individuals don't do blamable acts. We don't blame, judge, condemn them for not obeying rules. Individuals follow their own rules. Someone who is entranced by arguments that we are not conscious and not real is living in the world of blamable but unfree acts: of failure to follow the rules of conduct fixed in relation to rules of conduct of other roles.
- They see themselves as things in the world, instead of individuals remaking themselves with their conduct.
- Yes. They live in a constant state of being blamable but not responsible. That is, they live in a world where there is something to be said about them but they have no reality as individuals.
- A world where they are mere representations.


2.

- Last night I was talking to the Consul General from Greece...
- I can't believe you get people like that to talk to you. What did you two talk about?
- I asked him to explain to me the Prime Minister, a radical socialist elected on the promise to do something about the European Union's destruction of the Greek economy. The Consul asked me:
- Explain what?
- Six months of negotiation led to the EU hitting them with demands even worse than they began with, and threats to cut off delivery of Euros to their banks. Capitulate, or risk being thrown out of the European monetary union. The Prime Minister held a referendum asking the Greek people if they wanted to go on fighting, taking that risk. By a ratio of two to one they said Yes, take the chance. But within a day the Prime Minister defied the people that elected him and gave in to the demands of the EU. What happened? Why did the Prime Minister do it?
- Politicians are not liars. They are three hundred percent liars.
Politicians' promises might be unreal but the Consul's hatred of them was real enough. I liked him for it. I was beginning to feel the same about American politicians who claim to have taken up battle against the powers that be. Our home grown politicians are genius public speakers, way off the scale in their ability. But once they get into office the truth comes out. Three hundred percent liars!
- I know what you mean. They are such good liars. How do they manage it?
- Could we apply to them what we've just been talking about? They tell themselves that the more they immerse themselves in the falseness of political life, the more they themselves lie, the more they are blamable, but the less responsible.
- That's disgusting.
- It sure is.


Further Reading:
How Do We Make A Computer Not Want To Be A Computer?
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The Three Evils