Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Revolt of the Masses

The Republican candidates now sound like the spokesmen for the hysterical crowds in any number of old Twilight Zone episodes, the guys who insist we should string the malefactor up right away or burn down the stranger’s house or perhaps tattoo a barcode on the alien’s forearm. They endorse paranoia, fear of people who don’t look like us, blind patriotism, unprovoked aggression against other countries, obscurantism, anti-intellectualism, vigilantism, and even the use of torture. They may not all do it in a clown suit, but they’re all doing it. Moderate Republicans are officially extinct.
It was easy in the day to make fun of Rod Sterling’s liberal pieties, what we used to call the nicely, nicely; but his moral lessons don’t sound so schoolmarmish now that music redolent of the lynch mob resounds so loudly through the land, often enough from the podium in the House and Senate. I understand that the murder rate has recently lurched upwards after a long decline, but the escalation of political rhetoric strikes me as a better indicator of a premeditated reversion to barbarism because it is particularly significant when elites go bad. Political stupidity is, like any other liberation from inhibition, a pleasure. On the evidence, many people are finding it very hard to resist temptation; and the usual suspects are on hand to push the good stuff and use all the latest technologies of persuasion to market the product. The demagogues can now be followed on Twitter, multiplied holographically on CNN, piped into every beer bar in Christendom on Fox. What we have here is a case of progression in the service of the Id. 
I rant not because I think the bad guys are necessarily going to win this time, but because one of these days they very well may. All it would take is some bad timing on the part of the business cycle or a meaningless sex scandal or some other glitch. And if they do win, there’s no guarantee that the traditional Conservatives who just want to safeguard their wealth and screw the unions will be able to contain the folks they have so efficiently riled up.  Besides, by now some of them believe their own nonsense—consistent hypocrisy requires a level of self discipline few can maintain for long. What worries me is that America is not going to remain the white bread nation the right thinks it remembers. In the face of this inevitable change, I find it hard to believe that our reactionary populists won’t eventually act out violently, perhaps in concert with European groups also caught up in a similar state of cultural despair. I guess we’ll simply have to manage the outbreaks as best we can and wait for time to change the subject, though a policy of domestic containment is likely to be as nerve racking as the Cold War original.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You Think You Have Troubles?

Liberals have been complaining for decades that people of middling means vote against their own economic self interest when they vote for conservative Republicans, but the Trump phenomenon shows that the Republicans have their own worries about this group. They’d like to believe that the formerly Democratic white voters who jumped ship in protest to anti-war activists, DFHs, and the desegregation of schools by busing bought into Republican political economics even if their original motives were cultural. It turns out, however, that the base is perfectly comfortable with New Deal-style political proposals such as single payer health insurance so long as some one they trust makes the suggestion. During last week’s debate, Trump even had nice things to say about the British Health Service and got applause instead of jeers. Obama or Hilary Clinton could hardly have gotten away with that. 
Tea Party politics is identity politics, which means that a person with the right perceived identity can make points by appealing to the material interests of the base. In fact, in a competition between two candidates with equivalent white-bread credentials, the one who promises the most goodies is likely to win, free markets be damned. Jonah Goldberg wrote a book a few years ago called Liberal Fascism in which he made an effort to claim that the Nazis were a left-wing operation, an assertion that would have landed him in a Berlin madhouse had he made it in Germany before Hitler took over. What is true, however, is that right-wingers can and do appropriate liberal or socialist ideas and programs because a politics of personalities and machismo can appropriate anything. After all, in Tea Party speak, words do not mean, they signal. They don’t stand for anything specific, which is why these folks aren’t embarrassed by speech that strikes others as incoherence—Obama is simultaneously a Marxist, an atheist, a Muslim, a wimp, and a tyrant—because it’s not technically self-contradictory to call somebody both a mother fucker and a fag. Logic doesn’t count if you are using language in a non-propositional way, swearing allegiance or just swearing. If “constitutional” means what our guy says it means, who knows what can count as a free market policy, especially if I benefit from it?
What keeps at least some economic conservatives awake at night is the possibility that somebody may emerge who cares more his own aggrandizement than the protection of privilege, a Republican Huey Long. I’m guessing that Trump is at most the John the Baptist to such figure—I just don’t think he has the required stamina—but we may someday see Ted Cruz accepting the challenge. He has seemed determined from the beginning to become the Aaron Burr of the 21st Century and dispensing with neoliberal pieties would hardly be surprising in a politician from Texas where the line between left and right populism has always been hair thin.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Why Aren’t You a Racist?

American civilization lives an immense contradiction. The charter of our society is egalitarian—all men are created equal—but its reality is deeply unequal and growing more so. We try to resolve this contradiction by distinguishing equality of opportunity from equality of outcomes, but that doesn’t really work. Why do the same groups of people consistently have poor outcomes if human beings are fundamentally alike and the game is fair?  If you accept this logic and yet you are determined to maintain or even increase inequality, the only real out is to vilify the losers. What makes this such a dreadful trap is that it is never enough to ascribe perverse behavior to those at the bottom. They have to be made actually deviant by social and political action. The erstwhile friends blamed patient Job; but if the poor really were as patient as the patriarch and sat on their dung heaps scrapping their sores with a potsherd, it would be an intolerable reproach to the happy others. The nation needs the drug abuse, the violence, the ignorance, which is why it doesn’t leave it chance. Rather than trouble the sleep of the righteous, the teachers, cops, judges, prosecutors, and many others work long hours to ensure the required outcome. 

Whether you’re on the left or the right or the top or the bottom, this solution is not much of a solution. 

The left can’t really acknowledge the fundamental unfairness of the system without coming across as ranting Jeremiahs or dangerous radicals. Besides, and this is really the hard part, to publicly recognize realities would alienate and anger racial minorities, who don’t want anybody to advertise the de facto inferiority of poor people even if that inferiority is manufactured by the system—mentioning in passing that poor black neighborhoods really are dangerous and black people on the average are far less numerate and literate than other groups is what got me banned on Salon, even though the aside occurred in the contest of a comprehensive denunciation of structural racism. 

The right has its own problems with demonizing minorities. Many poor people who are white and vote Republican don’t appreciate the implicit negrification implied by the strategy; but it goes beyond that. There are few conservatives, especially in the base, who want to think of themselves as racists since racists are bad people and they aren’t bad people. Hence the tortured attempts to explain why those people don’t just lift themselves by their bootstraps and all become proprietors of 162 pizza restaurants. I guess the influence of evil liberals and the corrosive effects of government handouts are supposed to supply the explanation, but that hardly accounts for why black folks are uniquely susceptible to the purported sophistries of the intellectuals and other agents of the antichrist or, for that matter, what the motives of the evil liberals and minions of the dark lord are supposed to be. Well, evil is a theological concept. It doesn’t explain anything. It is a marker of the place where explanations fail. Meanwhile, the economic conservatives have another problem. Dog whistling the base certainly gets people into office who help you avoid paying higher taxes or salaries, but riling up the peasants carries well-known risks. What if somebody gets in power and takes the propaganda literally? You never know when the siren song of resentment politics will turn into the last trump. Restraint and moderation in political manipulation has a practical as well as an ethical rationale. Playing with fire, you can get burnt. And what if the poor somehow got organized?

Over and beyond its political dangers, the maintenance of unnecessarily high levels of poverty is not a cheering prospect even for the rich. Many of our billionaires simply won the lottery and woke up in the right cradle, but at least some of them actually built something and even those who didn’t may have normal moral instincts. Those who have an engineering mentality don’t like the human and financial waste it requires to build and expand economic inequality—poverty is extremely expensive. Meanwhile, those who buy into Enlightenment values or the social message of any of the major religions are repelled by the unfairness of it all. 

The ideology is especially hard on the poor because it makes them blame themselves for their own condition precisely because they largely buy into the meritocratic and egalitarian ideology of the country. Nobody is more American than African Americans—they’re the ones who act as if Jefferson didn't have his fingers crossed even if they know better. Contrary to what you hear on Fox or AM radio, black people don’t hear messages of self-pity from their leaders. Instead, they are bombarded with non-stop admonitions, sermons, and pep talks, which, like other forms of self-help, generally promise rather more than they can deliver. Of course if you tell people that things would be splendid if only they were exceptional, some of them really will become exceptional. That’s part of the reason why despised minorities produce extraordinary people—without the prodigious creativity of black musicians, we’d all still be whistling Green Grow the Rushes, after all. It’s also true that nothing will improve without the heroic agency of the victims. Nevertheless, the net effect of the rhetoric seems to be self-hatred more than anything else. Maybe that’s better than anger or despair. I don’t know.

Under the circumstances, I have to wonder why there hasn’t been a resurgence of overtly racist thinking. It’s not that I know any way to make scientific or philosophical sense out of racism—I’m not going to rehearse the usual and perfectly sound criticisms of the concept here—and I figure that one man’s blood has as much salt in it as another’s. It’s not that racism has any prospect of turning out to be an adequate or even coherent theory of human differences. I’m simply pointing out its obvious utility as a way of easing our social dilemmas. If we gave up the notion of the biological equality of all sorts and conditions of people, we wouldn’t have to try to square the circle. The enormous gaps in wealth and income between groups would be justified by nature. Sudras don’t have the rights of Brahmins because the Gods made them inferior and assigned them their place. No reason for either the Brahmins are the Sudras to worry about it. It’s nobody’s fault. Problem solved. And if you can deny global warming, the scientific difficulties shouldn't daunt you.

I pick up some indications that something like a return of the repressed is indeed underway. Jeff Bush didn’t mention the Bell Curve when he endorsed another one of Charles Murray’s books the other day; but Andrew Sullivan, who promoted the Bell Curve back in the day when he edited the New Republic still endorses its conclusions as obviously true. I’m sure he has lots of company. It just isn’t the case that racists have to be malevolent skinheads. Murray’s dreams are far more peaceful, almost bucolic, rather like some of the idealizing pictures that Southerners used to imagine of darkies living their lives in innocence and simplicity in the cabins out back, except if you read Murray closely, you’ll see that not all the darkies are necessarily dark. A renovated racism doesn’t have to hang everything on color or assume that all the natural slaves are black. Among the techno-libertarians you run across the notion that mankind is undergoing what amounts to a speciation event in which the dullards mate with dullards and the smart with smart, thus producing sibling species or natural castes. The advantage of this non-racist racism is that it doesn’t have to tie itself in knots over exceptional black people. They are simply nerds of lower albedo, a different variety of us. What’s needed is some way of getting around this equality business, not necessarily the old way.

In lieu of a refurbished scientific racism, I’d personally prefer another approach. Most of the poor people in this country work. Suppose they got paid better. Minorities but also poor whites tend to be less well educated than well off whites and Asians, in large part because a crucial part of anybody’s education takes place at home before school age and many minority people simply have less cultural capital to pass on to their offspring. So what if we spent the money and time to educate the adults in poor communities so they’d have that capital? Many poor neighborhoods have inadequate access to the Internet. How would it be if we made access universal just as we promoted rural electrification back in the New Deal? Poor people often lack access to basic banking services like check cashing and savings accounts. Why can’t the Post Office supply these services and make a profit in the process? Cities depend on fines and fees that disproportionately burden poor people because they lack the necessary tax base. What if we figured out how to provide the cities with reliable alternate sources of revenue? Many urban neighborhoods are unsafe because arbitrary and oppressive policing is not the same thing as good policing. So what if we hired enough cops and trained them well enough so that they were able to be on the side of the inhabitants? By treating drug use as a criminal issue instead of a health issue, we fill prisons with miserable people, wreck families, promote violence, and create powerful criminal organizations. What if we stopped? 

Of course suggestions like these have the same drawback, which is presumably fatal. They all imply that we move in the direction of a more equal society and mean that the haves will have to be have lesses, though granted the economic inefficiencies of a drastically unequal society, the game is probably not zero sum. My suggestions wouldn’t eliminate poverty, either—even social democracies like Sweden continue to have poor people—but perhaps we could greatly reduce the number of the poor. After all, there used to be fewer poor people in the U.S. They also wouldn’t eliminate racism. Races may be largely arbitrary groupings built on imagined essences, but racism, i.e., the human tendency to identify and demonize groups on the basis of superficial differences, does seem to be natural to our kind. Thing is, though, I’m less concerned about who Uncle Ernie can’t stand and more concerned whether the political system of my country treats people fairly. I’m weary beyond measure with the way that every debate about race and poverty ends up being a question of verbal propriety as if things would be magically better if nobody ever used or even mentioned the N-word. Does anybody care about what people do?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Turning Out the Base

In the olden days, the conservatives would scoff at democracy because the People in their wisdom would elect a wrestling star if they had their druthers. More recent conservatives have taken this idea to heart and are trying to act as much like wrestling stars as possible, strutting and preening and posing. Donald Trump even looks a bit like Gorgeous George. The Republicans are the party of privilege but the privilege they stand for is wealth, the most demotic of distinctions; and the remarkable crassness of the contestants in the Mussolini-of-the-Month competition currently underway is a way of identifying with the just plain folks. The time-tested stunts of late night used car commercials work, and the politicians know it.

Incidentally, I’m not complaining that the Republicans are hypocritical. They aren’t flying under false colors. They really are common. Plutocracy is the populist variety of elitism, and in their fashion its adherents really are small d democrats. The problem is that they reinforce precisely those aspects of democracy that are most problematic and not only problematic from the point of view of paleo-conservatives who have to hold their noses before they pull the lever on the voting machine.

What’s good about democracy is the project of engaging the energy and intelligence of the whole population. What’s bad about it is that the easiest way to mobilize the masses is to appeal to fear and prejudice. If the People are sovereign, they are also responsible and need to have their feet put to the fire from time to time; but it’s fatally easy for Demos to evade its obligations by blaming enemies even if it has to create them first as in the present pass where the immigrants, who had nothing to do with it, are made into the scapegoat for the economic troubles of the last decade. And then there is the susceptibility of the People to flattery—that’s what the endless drone about American exceptionalism comes down to, after all. Unfortunately, if we’re as special as all that, the ordinary norms of decent behavior don't apply to us as a nation and we can break treaties or invade countries with a clear conscience knowing that our intentions are pure. If America recognized itself as a proxy for the rest of mankind because almost every kind of human being is in fact a member of our national community that would be one thing. Republican herrenvolk democracy denies itself that out, however, since it defines the real America much more narrowly. For the right-wingers I grew up around, you weren’t an American if you lived in New York or San Francisco or had the wrong color skin or the wrong religious opinions. These days you can be read out of the nation if you don’t own a car or like the wrong kind of lettuce.
Democracy works, when it works, when elites don’t simply use it for their own purposes. I remain a small d democrat if only because it seems to me that the country ought to belong to its inhabitants; but I have no illusions about how dangerous democracy is in the hands of the little people. Of course by little people I refer to the current collection of American political leaders, especially that conspiracy of the mediocre that constitutes the Republican Party. 

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Nothing Better to Say

Famous bit of Teutonic humor: Life is so painful that it is best to have a short life, but even better never to have been born. Unfortunately, scarcely one in a million is that lucky. I recall the joke every time I encounter Pascal’s Wager. As you’ll recall, the Wager runs like this: Even if you rate the probability that God exists as small, the payoff for belief is so enormously great—eternal beatitude—that you should opt for religion because of its infinite expected value. Infinity times any finite number is infinity. Lots of people have criticized the wager on the grounds that so calculating a faith could hardly be expected to please God; but the more obvious problem, at least to me, is that there are at least a countably infinite number of equivalent wager arguments of the following form
Even if you rate the probability that n gods exist is small, the payoff for belief in n gods is so enormous that you should opt for the religion of the n true gods because of its infinite expected value. 
It gets worse if you figure that you have to allow for the possibility of an irrational number of Gods* because then you can’t even count the number of arguments. Of course the proposer of the Wager may argue that the other propositions are less likely than the monotheistic option; but, even if you agree, it doesn’t help. You’re just opting for a golden oldie. Infinity times any number is infinity. All the arguments are mathematically equivalent, and that demonstrates how infinities turn moral theories into indefinable nonsense. That’s why we should renormalize talk about how we should act and be by canceling infinities and infinite beings out of our calculations. When religion gets out of hand, i.e., when you take it seriously, it destroys moral reason.
The same strictures apply to talk about the value of existence itself since the alternative to existence is nothing. You can’t measure how much life is worth by comparing it to the state of non being because in so doing you invoke a ratio whose denominator is zero and division by zero doesn’t have a definable meaning. You can’t say your life is worth 3,452,871 units of zip, or rather you can and people do; but the results are pretty much the same as the famous bit of Teutonic humor. As the Buddha pointed out long ago, there are questions that do not lead to enlightenment.  
* Theologians, with the possible exception of certain admirably eccentric devotees of the Kabbalah, seem to have a limited imagination when it comes to mathematics. Maybe there are π distinct persons in the godhead. After all, π turns up everywhere else; and being is supposed to be round. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Consolation Prize of Philosophy

One’s worldview is a kited check, though people normally die before some Socrates or other tries to cash it and it becomes clear that there are insufficient funds in the account. I’m keenly aware of this problem and I write, not to change anybody’s mind—like that’s going to happen—but in an attempt to find out what I think about things. I’m trying to be my own private Socrates. Until my words appear in front of me on a page, I’m living on faith, subscribing to the vague religion whose one discernible tenet its that I actually have a creed. On the evidence to date, there isn’t much in there, but I still want to know.

Writing in this sense is an ordeal rather like psychoanalysis or interrogation under torture, though it is thankfully much cheaper than the former and somewhat less painful than the latter. The analyst says nothing; the tormentor refuses to tell the prisoner what he is supposed to confess. That’s how you wring water—or blood—from the stone. It’s also why some of the most powerful books were written in prison and repressive regimes would be well advised not to imprison rebels if they aren’t going to kill them outright. Protracted solitude is unnatural and therefore the appropriate scene for the unnatural act of thinking as a individual, which is to say writing.  Anyhow, writers or at least the philosophical kind of writer are close kin to criminals—you can ask ‘em about that—and criminals belong in prison. 
Fortunately, there is a sensible alternative if you insist on writing, but don’t want to come across as a Dostoyevsky character. You can practice reverse plagiarism, saying whatever you like while convincing yourself and everybody else that you’re speaking in the name of a revered ancestor. A tremendous amount of human creativity takes place under the cover of fraudulent discipleship. We just don’t accord enough respect to the emancipatory potential of pedantry.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Content Providers

The Dewey Decimal system categorizes books on philosophy and psychology in the same section—the 100s—as if psychology were somehow a basic or fundamental subject in the same way the philosophy is or was once thought to be. I know it’s eccentric of me to find this anomalous. I used to think that the Dewey classification simply reflected the notions prevalent at the end of the 19th Century when there were grown men who insisted that physics, properly understood, was a bookkeeping system for sense data. Alas, as I’m reminded from time to time, people still think there is something particularly important or central about psychology or even neurology, which is bidding to become the phrenology of the millennials. Heck, I know college-educated men and women who believe that remembering and thinking are basically something that individuals do, a notion which strikes me as as odd as claiming that radios know how to play the guitar. Obviously memories and ideas cycle through the receivers and the character of the equipment surely alter them, but civilization, aka Objective Spirit is doing the broadcasting. Of course, it is true that a tiny number of individuals actually have a role in originating thought, but then a short but critical part of everybody’s life cycle is spent in the one-cell phase and we don’t confuse ourselves with amoebas. Statistically speaking, the subject of thinking is plural.

If I’m so big on the social nature of human existence, why not suggest putting sociology in the same section with philosophy? From my point of view, that would also be a mistake, because philosophy differs from the sciences not in content—you can philosophize about absolutely anything—but in what it does. Philosophy is the politics of thought and not the natural partner of any special science. Even so, sociology would be a better candidate for queen of the sciences and spouse of philosophy than poor, benighted psychology. Or you could go with the practice of knowing that is actually the most comprehensive of them all, philology. We’re just now coming around to the recognition of how much the modern understanding of the world owes to the bookworms and their cybernetic successors—the Theory of Evolution played a minor role in the demolition of traditional religiosity compared to the Higher Criticism—and a persuasive case has been made that philology gave birth to the humanities and social sciences in their current form.