Archive for October, 2016

This is a continuation from part 1.

A long, tortured argument could be offered how we (in the U.S.) are governed by a narrow class of plutocrats (both now and at the founding) who not-so-secretly distrust the people and the practice of direct democracy, employing instead mechanisms found in the U.S. Constitution (such as the electoral college) to transfer power away from the people to so-called experts. I won’t indulge in a history lesson or other analysis, but it should be clear to anyone who bothers to look that typical holders of elected office (and their appointees) more nearly resemble yesteryear’s landed gentry than the proletariat. Rule by elites is thus quite familiar to us despite plenty of lofty language celebrating the common man and stories repeated ad naseum of a few exceptional individuals (exceptional being the important modifier here) who managed to bootstrap their way into the elite from modest circumstances.

Part 1 started with deGrasse Tyson’s recommendation that experts/elites should pitch ideas at the public’s level and ended with my contention that some have lost their public by adopting style or content that fails to connect. In the field of politics, I’ve never quite understood the obsession with how things present to the public (optics) on the one hand and obvious disregard for true consent of the governed on the other. For instance, some might recall pretty serious public opposition before the fact to invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks. The Bush Administration’s propaganda campaign succeeded in buffaloing a fair percentage of the public, many of whom still believe the rank lie that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and represented enough of an existential threat to the U.S. to justify preemptive invasion. Without indulging in conspiratorial conjecture about the true motivations for invasion, the last decade plus has proven that opposition pretty well founded, though it went unheeded.

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See this exchange where Neil deGrasse Tyson chides Sam Harris for failing to speak to his audience in terms it understands:

The upshot is that lay audiences simply don’t subscribe to or possess the logical, rational, abstract style of discourse favored by Harris. Thus, Harris stands accused of talking past his audience — at least somewhat — especially if his audience is understood to be the general public rather than other well-educated professionals. Subject matter is less important than style but revolves around politics, and worse, identity politics. Everyone has abundant opinions about those, whether informed by rational analysis or merely fed by emotion and personal resonance.

The lesson deGrasse Tyson delivers is both instructive and accurate yet also demands that the level of discourse be lowered to a common denominator (like the reputed 9th-grade speech adopted by the evening news) that regrettably forestalls useful discussion. For his part (briefly, at the end), Harris takes the lesson and does not resort to academic elitism, which would be obvious and easy. Kudos to both, I guess, though I struggle (being somewhat an elitist); the style-over-substance argument really goes against the grain for me. Enhancements to style obviously work, and great communicators use them and are convincing as a result. (I distinctly recall Al Gore looking too much like a rock star in An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe it backfired. I tend to think that style could not overcome other blocks to substance on that particular issue.) Slick style also allows those with nefarious agendas to hoodwink the public into believing nonsense.

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The Internets/webs/tubes have been awfully active spinning out theories and conspiracies with respect to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (are those modifiers even necessary?) and the shoe ready to drop if and when Julian Assange releases information in his possession reputed to spell the end of her candidacy and political career. Assange has been unaccountably coy: either he has the goods or he doesn’t. There’s no reason to tease and hype. Hillary has been the subject of intense scrutiny for 25+ years. With so much smoke billowing in her wake, one might conclude burning embers must exist. But our current political culture demonstrates that one can get away with unthinkably heinous improprieties, evasions, and crimes so long as one trudges steadfastly through all the muck. Some even make a virtue out of intransigence. Go figure.

If I were charitable, I would say that Hillary has been unfairly maligned and that her 2010 remark “Can’t we just drone this guy?” is either a fabrication or taken out of context. Maybe it was a throwaway joke, uttered in a closed meeting and forgotten except for someone who believed it might be useful later. Who can ever know? But I’m not so charitable. No one in a position of authority can afford to be flip about targeting political irritants. Hillary impresses as someone who, underneath all the noise, would not lose any sleep over droning her detractors.

There is scarcely anything on the political landscape as divisive as when someone blows the whistle on illicit government actions and programs. For instance, some are absolutely convinced that Edward Snowden is a traitor and ought to receive a death sentence (presumably after a trial, but not necessarily). Others understand his disclosures as the act of a patriot of the highest order, motivated not by self-interest but by love of country and the sincere belief in the public’s right to know. The middle ground between these extremes is a veritable wasteland — one I happen to occupy. Julian Assange is similarly divisive, and like Snowden, he appears to believe that the truth will eventually come out and indeed must. What I can’t quite reconcile is the need for secrecy and the willingness of the general public to accept leaders who habitually operate behind such veils. Talk of transparency is usually just subterfuge. If we’re truly the good guys and our ideals are superior to those of our detractors, why not simply trust in those strengths?