Caveat: this post is uncharacteristically long and perhaps a bit disjointed. Or perhaps an emerging blogging style is being forged. Be forewarned.

Sam Harris has been the subject of or mentioned in numerous previous blog posts. His podcast Making Sense (formerly, Waking Up), partially behind a paywall but generously offered for free (no questions asked) to those claiming financial hardship, used to be among those I would tune in regularly. Like the Joe Rogan Experience (soon moving to Spotify — does that mean its disappearance from YouTube?), the diversity of guests and reliable intellectual stimulation have been attractive. Calling his podcast Making Sense aligns with my earnest concern over actually making sense of things as the world spins out of control and our epistemological crisis deepens. Yet Harris has been a controversial figure since coming to prominence as a militant atheist. I really want to like what Harris offers, but regrettably, he has lost (most of) my attention. Others reaching the same conclusion have written or vlogged their reasons, e.g., “Why I’m no longer a fan of ….” Do a search.

Having already ranted over specific issues Harris has raised, let me instead register three general complaints. First, once a subject is open for discussion, it’s flogged to death, often without reaching any sort of conclusion, or frankly, helping to make sense. For instance, Harris’ solo discussion (no link) regarding facets of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which event sparked still unabated civil unrest, did more to confuse than clarify. It was as though Harris were trying the court case by himself, without a judge, jury, or opposing counsel. My second complaint is that Harris’ verbosity, while impressive in many respects, leads to interviews marred by long-winded, one-sided speeches where the thread is hopelessly lost, blocking an interlocutor from tracking and responding effectively. Whether Harris intends to bury others under an avalanche of argument or does so uncontrollably doesn’t matter. It’s still a Gish gallop. Third is his over-emphasis on hypotheticals and thought experiments. Extrapolation is a useful but limited rhetorical technique, as is distillation. However, treating prospective events as certainties is tantamount to building arguments on poor foundations, namely, abstractions. Much as I admire Harris’ ambition to carve out a space within the public sphere to get paid for thinking and discussing topics of significant political and philosophical currency, he frustrates me enough that I rarely tune in anymore.

In contrast, the Rebel Wisdom channel on YouTube offers considerably more useful content, which includes a series on sensemaking. The face of Rebel Wisdom is documentarian David Fuller, who asks informed questions but avoids positioning himself in the expository center. Quite a change from the too familiar news-anchor-as-opinion-maker approach taken by most media stars. If there were a blog, I would add it to my blogroll. However, offer of memberships ranging from $5 to $500 per month irks me. Paid-for VIP status too closely resembles selling of empty cachet or Catholic indulgences, especially those with guarantees of “special access.”

I became especially interested in Daniel Schmachtenberger‘s appearances on Rebel Wisdom and his approach to sensemaking. Lots of exciting ideas; clearly the fellow has developed an impressive framework for the dynamics involved. But to make it really useful, as opposed to purely theoretical, formal study akin to taking a philosophy course is needed. Maybe there’s written material available, but without a clear text resource, the prospect of sifting unguided through a growing collection of YouTube videos caused me to retreat (out of frustration? laziness?). At some later point, I learned that Schmachtenberger was a participant among a loose collection of under-the-radar intellectuals (not yet having elevated themselves to thought leaders) working on an alternative to politics-and-civilization-as-usual called Game B (for lack of a better name). A good article about Schmachtenberger and what’s called “The War on Sensemaking” (numerous Internet locations) is found here.

While the Game B gang seems to have imploded over disagreements and impasses (though there may well be Internet subcultures still carrying the torch), its main thrust has been picked up by Bret Weinstein and his DarkHorse Podcast (var.: Dark Horse) co-hosted by his wife Heather Heying. Together, they analyze contemporary political and cultural trends through the twin perspectives of evolutionary biology and game theory. They also live in Portland, Oregon, home to the most radical leftist civil unrest currently under way this summer of 2020. They further warn unambiguously that we Americans are at grave risk of losing the grand melting pot experiment the U.S. represents as the self-anointed leader of the free world and standard-bearer of liberal democratic values sprung from the Enlightenment. What is meant by protesters to succeed the current regime in this proto-revolutionary moment is wildly unclear, but it looks to be decidedly fascist in character. Accordingly, Weinstein and Heying are actively promoting Unity 2020 (var.: Unity2020 and Un1ty2020) to select and nominate an independent U.S. presidential candidate — “Not Trump. Not Biden.” Unless you’re jacked into the Internet and political discussions avidly, it’s quite easy to overlook this emergent political reform. I was vaguely aware of Articles of Unity and its “Plan to Save the Republic” yet still had trouble locating it via Web searches. Weinstein’s penchant (shared with his brother Eric) for coining new terms with flexible spelling is no aid.

Like Rebel Wisdom, Weinstein and Heying, each on their individual Patreon pages, offer multiple levels of membership and access: $2 to $250 per month for him, $5 to $17 per month for her. Why such high divergence, I wonder? I raise paid memberships repeatedly because, while acknowledging the need to fund worthwhile endeavor and to earn a living, there is something tacky and unseemly about enabling concentric inner circles exclusively through paid access — no other apparent qualification needed. More pointedly, an article called “The Corrupting Power Of The Inner Ring” by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative discusses David Brooks’ column about Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think (2017) where Jacobs cites C.S. Lewis’ concept of the inner ring — something to be distrusted. (Sorry about that long string of names.) Also demonstrates how ideas are highly derivative of antecedents found throughout culture and history.

Anyway, the DarkHorse Podcast provides some of the best analysis (not to be confused with news reporting or journalism, neither of which is even remotely successful at sensemaking anymore) to be found among those inserting themselves into the public conversation (if such a thing can be said to exist). Willingness to transform oneself into a pundit and then opine freely about anything and everything is a shared attribute of the people profiled above. (I specifically disclaimed punditry as a goal of mine when launching this blog.) That most of them have embraced podcasting (not blogging — I’m so unhip, committed to a legacy medium that both came and went with surprising celerity — as the primary medium of information exchange is quite contemporary. I surmise it’s silent acknowledgement that Americans (on the whole) no longer read and that text has fallen out of favor compared to speech, especially the eavesdropped conversational type. Podcasting doesn’t complete the information gathering and sensemaking shift from text and newsprint to TV and video begun many decades ago but certainly intensifies it. Podcasting has also demonstrated real money-making potential if one succeeds in attracting a sufficient audience (driving ad revenue) and/or a cadre of subscribers and contributors. Potential for real political engagement is unproven as yet.

Another public intellectual I cited briefly a couple years ago, Thomas Sowell, crossed my browsing path yet again. And yet again, I found myself somewhat credulously led down the primrose path set by his reckless (or savvy?) juxtaposition of facts and details until a seemingly logical conclusion appeared magically without his ever having made it manifest. In the two-year-old interview I watched (no link), Sowell states cause-and-effect (or substitutes one combo for another) confidently while simultaneously exuding false humility. He basically serves up a series of small sells leading to the big sell, except that the small sells don’t combine convincingly unless one is swept unawares into their momentum. But the small sells work individually, and I found myself agreeing repeatedly before having to recognize and refuse the final sale. I also recognize in Sowell’s reliance on facts and numerical data my own adherence to evidence. That’s an epistemological foundation we should all share. Moreover, my willingness to consider Sowell’s remarks is a weak stab at heterodoxy. But as the modern information environment has made abundantly clear, lying with numbers and distortion of facts (or more simply, fake news and narrative spin) are precisely what makes sensemaking so difficult yet critical. For instance, I have echoed Sowell recently in suggesting that inequality and structural violence may be less rooted in snarling, overt racism (at least since the Civil Rights Era) than in simple greed and opportunism while acknowledging that virulent white supremacism does still exit. Yet others insist that everything is political, or racist, or owing to class conflict, or subsumed entirely by biology, chemistry, or physics (or religion). Take your pick of interpretations of reality a/k/a sensemaking. I had halfway expected someone to take me to task for failing to voice the approved radical leftist orthodoxy or try to cancel me for publishing something nominally conservative or Sowellesque. But no one cares what I blog about; I have succeeded in avoiding punditry.

With such a sprawling survey of sensemakers good and bad, successful and unsuccessful (according to me), there is no handy conclusion. Instead, let me point to the launching point for this blog post: my blog post called “Mad World Preamble.” Even before that, I blogged about Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (2010), drawing particular attention to chap. 12 as his diagnosis of how and when the modern world went mad. Perhaps we have indeed managed step back from the atomic brink (MAD) only to totter and stumble through a few extra decades as PoMo madness overtook us completely in the latter half of the 20th century; and maybe the madness is not yet the hallucinatory type fully evident at a glance. However, look no further than the two gibbering fools foisted upon the voting public in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Neither is remotely capable of serving responsibly. Every presidential election in the 21st century has been accompanied by breathless analysis prophesying the implosion of either political party following an electoral loss. Well, they both imploded and can’t field a proper candidate for high office anymore. There is probably no stronger test case for societal and institutional madness than the charade we’re now witnessing. Maybe Unity 2020 is onto something.

Comments
  1. leavergirl says:

    I vaguely like Sam Harris, but in small doses here and there. Militant atheism is a turn off for me, so I don’t look him up.

    I don’t do paywall stuff. There are bloggers who ask for money periodically, and I have on occasion sent something. If people want a paywall, I ain’t climbing it.

    I find podcasts by and large tedious. Voice and picture are a very slow and ungainly way to convey complex ideas. Voice and pic are well suited to documentaries and brief timely rants, but ideas flourish best in the written mode, particularly if they are followed by a robust discussion again in written mode. One lively place to visit where written word flourishes in political analyses and the commentariat is Vineyard of the Saker. That is not to say I agree with much of what is written here – and there is a great deal both by Saker and his colleagues – but the bias is pretty explicit and usually there is a piece here and there that is real food for thought for those who follow current affairs.

    I figure if the gang of Game B imploded, then they don’t have the skill for the main task: to create an alternative to politics and civ as usual. Just as well, then.

    It’s a little late for Unity 2020. It’s been many years since the possibility of adding “none of the above” to the voting ticket had been presented. I believe there are a few countries that actually did implement it, I think Hungary may be one of them. A good idea, provided it’s implemented. As for a write-in, you might as well write in Wavy Gravy. (I just looked them up and they are pretending to field candidates. Silly.)

    I think what we are seeing both in Europe and here is the failure of the party system. Both American and all European parties are in shambles. And the candidates are never anything to write home about. More to be resented as the scum that rose. In any case, they are not who rules. They prance before us, but the deep state runs things, and they are neither elected nor held responsible. (By deep state I mean the higher bureaucracies that sit on top of everything like a smothering lovecraftian nightmare – government, military, justice system, schools, industry, banking, big churches, science establishments, medicine – whatever institutions matter.) They are the swamp, and nobody knows how to drain it. Particularly since some parts of it remain useful. Natural swamps too have their good uses; but nobody wants their murky ooze take over everything. Also, bureaucracies are not suited to governance; they are meant to be supportive, not executive. People who live in lifelong intrigues, climbing over others in a system that fattens itself on problems going unsolved… well, these are courtiers, not knights.

    • Greg Knepp says:

      I’m not convinced about the Big State; if such an entity exists at all, it’s a drunken, impotent cyclops similar to the one that Odysseus dispatched with a little slight-of-hand. ‘Corporatism’ would seem to describe the driving force of the current age.

      Always look to the tall buildings to determine the controlling institution of a society. Who had the resources to build such monstrosities? The pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the massive cathedrals of the middle ages, the castles and palaces of the royal era, the huge neoclassical structures of liberal nationalism, and now, the skyscrapers of the corporation. The corporation – a contrivance ushered in by the Industrial Revolution…one that now “bestrides the narrow world like a colossus”.* The oversized buildings – they tell all.

      * Shakespeare

      • leavergirl says:

        Well, if you look at Brussels, all the (at last count 52, but that was some years back) “glass and concrete palaces” house bureaucrats. And then they move everything to France and back, at the cost of gazillion.

        Impotent in doing good work, yes, but not impotent in making human life a lot worse than it could be.

    • Brutus says:

      Interesting comment. Regarding Game B and Unity 2020, the pessimist in me agrees with your assessment, that they lack skilled organization to make anything happen in the November 2020 election. But in a more optimistic mood, I’d say that grassroots movements gotta start somewhere. It’s too late for a viable third party (or fourth and fifth parties) to do more than serve up pointless sacrificial candidates, but I’m interesting in voting that direction to lend credibility to alternative to the sclerotic old man show. And it’s possible that should a viable party eventually succeed in establishing itself beyond current irrelevance, it will be coopted and corrupted just like the two main parties. But until it all falls apart totally, that’s the dysfunctional party system we have.

      How far one wishes to extend the metaphorical Deep State into other social institutions (now largely aged and corrupted) is a curious question for which I have no answer. But I do tend to agree that politics is mostly froth. If it were beer, we could wait for the foam to settle out and then have our drink. But politics continue to churn in perpetual campaigns, fundraising, and strategizing. Folks are already discussing 2024.

  2. leavergirl says:

    Yup, it’s a mess. I see the two sides as unequal regarding lesser evil; for example, there were no conservative thugs harassing the people walking out of the Dem convention, but there were plenty of lefty thugs harassing the conservatives walking out. Rand Paul was attacked, despite his security detail. Whom do you choose? A sad situation.

    But beyond that, both parties are in shambles, and it’s hard to take them seriously. They are part of the Spectacle… Third parties are a losing proposition in America. But if the Dems lose and fall completely apart, maybe something will rise to replace them.

  3. Atheism of Harris is chaotic.

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