Archive for August, 2022

In the sense that all news is local and all learning is individual, meaning that it’s only when something is individualized and particularized that it takes on context and meaning, I may finally understand (some doubt still) Sheldon Wolin’s term “inverted totalitarianism,” part of the subtitle of his 2006 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Regrettably, this book is among the (many) dozens that await my attention, so I can’t yet claim to have done the work. (I did catch a long YouTube interview of Wolin conducted by Chris Hedges, but that’s a poor substitute for reading the book.) My process is to percolate on a topic and its ancillary ideas over time until they come together satisfactorily, and my provisional understanding of the issues is closer to “proxy tyranny” than “inverted totalitarianism.”

I daresay most of us conceptualize tyranny and totalitarianism in the bootheel versions that manifested in several 20th-century despotic regimes (and survives in several others in the 21st century, names and locations withheld) where population management is characterized by stomping people down, grinding them into dust, and treating them as an undifferentiated mass. Administrators (e.g., secret police) paid close attention to anyone who might pose a problem for the regimes, and neighbors and family members were incentivized to betray inform on anyone who might be on officialdom’s radar. The 21st-century manifestation is different in that computers do most information gathering — a dragnet thrown over everyone — and we inform on ourselves by oversharing online. Close attention is still paid, but human eyes may never see extensive dossiers (forever records?) kept on each of us until something prompts attention. A further distinction is that in bootheel totalitarianism, intense scrutiny and punishment were ubiquitous, whereas at least in 21st-century America, a sizeable portion of the population can be handily ignored, abandoned, and/or forgotten. They’re powerless, harmless, and inconsequential, not drawing attention. Additionally, there is also no bottom to how low they can sink, as the burgeoning homeless population demonstrates.

If tyranny is normally understood as emanating from the top down, it’s inversion is bottom up. Wolin’s inverted totalitarianism is not a grassroots phenomenon but rather corporate capture of government. While Wolin’s formulation may be true (especially at the time his book was published), government has relinquished none of its power so much as realigned its objectives to fit corporate profit motives, and in doing so, shifted administrative burdens to proxies. Silicon Valley corporations (of the big data type especially) are the principal water carriers, practicing surveillance capitalism and as private entities exercising censorious cancellation of dissenting opinion that no formal government could countenance. Similarly, an entire generation of miseducated social justice warriors scours social media for evidence of noncomforming behavior, usually some offense of the meme of the moment a/k/a “I support the current thing” (though racism is the perennial accusation — an original sin that can never be forgiven or assuaged), waiting to pounce in indignation and destroy lives and livelihoods. Cancel culture is a true bottom-up phenomenon, with self-appointed emissaries doing the work that the government is only too happy to hand off to compliant, brainwashed ideologues.

In the Covid era, nonconforming individuals (e.g., those who refuse the jab(s) or call bullshit on continuously shifting narratives announced by various agencies that lack legal standing to compel anything) are disenfranchised in numerous ways even while the wider culture accepts that the pandemic is indeed endemic and simply gets on with life. Yet every brick-and-mortar establishment has been authorized, deputized, and indeed required to enforce unlawful policies of the moment as proxies for government application of force. Under threat of extended closure, every restaurant, retailer, arts organization, and sports venue demanded the literal or figurative equivalent of “papers please” to enter and assemble. Like the airlines, people are increasingly regarded as dehumanized cargo, treated roughly like the famous luggage ape (and not always without good reason). In most places, restrictions have been lifted; in others they persist. But make no mistake, this instantiation of proxy tyranny — compelling others to do the dirty work so that governments can not so plausibly deny direct responsibility — is the blueprint for future mistreatment. Personally, I’m rather ashamed that fewer Americans stood up for what is right and true (according to me, obviously), echoing this famous admission of moral failure. For my own part, I’ve resisted (and paid the price for that resistance) in several instances.

In sales and marketing (as I understand them), one of the principal techniques to close a sale is to generate momentum by getting the prospective mark buyer to agree to a series of minor statements (small sells) leading to the eventual purchasing decision (the big sell or final sale). It’s narrow to broad, the reverse of the broad-to-narrow paragraph form many of us were taught in school. Both organizational forms proceed through assertions that are easy to swallow before getting to the intended conclusion. That conclusion could be either an automotive purchase or adoption of some argument or ideology. When the product, service, argument, or ideology is sold effectively by a skilled salesman or spin doctor narrative manager, that person may be recognized as a closer, as in sealing the deal.

Many learn to recognize the techniques of the presumptive closer and resist being drawn in too easily. One of those techniques is to reframe the additional price of something as equivalent to, say, one’s daily cup of coffee purchased at some overpriced coffee house. The presumption is that if one has the spare discretionary income to buy coffee every day, then one can put that coffee money instead toward a higher monthly payment. Suckers might fall for it — even if they don’t drink coffee — because the false equivalence is an easily recognized though bogus substitution. The canonical too-slick salesman no one trusts is the dude on the used car lot wearing some awful plaid jacket and sporting a pornstache. That stereotype, borne out of the 1970s, barely exists anymore but is kept alive by repetitive reinforcement in TV and movies set in that decade or at least citing the stereotype for cheap effect (just as I have). But how does one spot a skilled rhetorician, spewing social and political hot takes to drive custom narratives? Let me identify a few markers.

Thomas Sowell penned a brief article entitled “Point of No Return.” I surmise (admitting my lack of familiarity) that is a conservative website, which all by itself does not raise any flags. Indeed, in heterodox fashion, I want to read well reasoned arguments with which I may not always agree. My previous disappointment that Sowell fails in that regard was only reinforced by the linked article. Take note that the entire article uses paragraphs that are reduced to bite-sized chunks of only one or two sentences. Those are small sells, inviting closure with every paragraph break.

Worse yet, only five (small) paragraphs in, Sowell succumbs to Godwin’s Law and cites Nazis recklessly to put the U.S. on a slippery slope toward tyranny. The obvious learned function of mentioning Nazis is to trigger a reaction, much like baseless accusations of racism, sexual misconduct, or baby eating. It puts everyone on the defensive without having to demonstrate the assertion responsibly, which is why the first mention of Nazis in argument is usually sufficient to disregard anything else written or said by the person in question. I might have agreed with Sowell in his more general statements, just as conservatism (as in conservation) appeals as more and more slips away while history wears on, but after writing “Nazi,” he lost me entirely (again).

Sowell also raises several straw men just to knock them down, assessing (correctly or incorrectly, who can say?) what the public believes as though there were monolithic consensus. I won’t defend the general public’s grasp of history, ideological placeholders, legal maneuvers, or cultural touchstones. Plenty of comedy bits demonstrate the deplorable level of awareness of individual members of society like they were fully representative of the whole. Yet plenty of people pay attention and accordingly don’t make the cut when offering up idiocy for entertainment. (What fun, ridiculing fools!) The full range of opinion on any given topic is not best characterized by however many idiots and ignoramuses can be found by walking down the street and shoving a camera and mic in their astonishingly unembarrassed faces.

So in closing, let me suggest that, in defiance of the title of this blog post, Thomas Sowell is in fact not a closer. Although he drops crumbs and morsels gobbled up credulously by those unable to recognize they’re being sold a line of BS, they do not make a meal. Nor should Sowell’s main point, i.e., the titular point of no return, be accepted when his burden of proof has not been met. That does not necessary mean Sowell is wrong in the sense that even a stopped close tells the time correctly twice a day. The danger is that even if he’s partially correction some of the time, his perspective and program (nonpartisan freedom! whatever that may mean) must be considered with circumspection and disdain. Be highly suspicious before buying what Sowell is selling. Fundamentally, he’s a bullshit artist.