Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

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“Come with me if you want to live.” That’s among the quotable lines from the latest movie in the Terminator franchise, though it’s not nearly so succinct or iconic as “I’ll be back” from the first Terminator. Whereas the latter has the quality (in hindsight) of slow, implacable inevitability (considering the Terminator is literally a death-bringer), the former occurs within the context of a character having only just traveled back in time, not yet adequately reoriented, and forced to make a snap decision under duress. “I’ll be back” might be easy to brush off as harmless (temporary denial) since the threat recedes — except that it doesn’t, it’s merely delayed. “Come with me …” demands a leap of faith (or trust) because the danger is very real at that instant.

Which quote, I must ask, better characterizes the threat of climate change? My answer: both, but at different times. Three to four decades ago, it was the “I’ll be back” type: building slowly but inevitable given the underlying structure of industrial civilization. That structure was known even then by a narrow circle of experts (e.g., engineers for Big Oil and at the Dept. of Energy) to be a heat engine, meaning that we would ultimately cook our own goose by warming the planet, altering the climatic steady state under which our most recent civilization has flourished and producing a steady loss of biodiversity and biomass until our own human habitat (the entirety of the planet by now) becomes a hostile environment unable (unwilling if one anthropomorphizes Mother Nature) to support our swollen population. All that was if we stayed on course and took no corrective action. Despite foreknowledge and ample warning, that’s precisely what occurred (and continues today).

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in particular, the threat has for roughly a decade shifted over to “Come with me ….” It’s no longer possible to put things off, yet we continue to dither well beyond the tipping point where/when we can still save ourselves from self-annihilation. Although scientists have been gathering data and evidence, forming an overwhelming consensus, and sounding the alarm, scientific illiteracy, realpolitik, journalistic malpractice, and corporate greed have all conspired to grant the illusion of time to react we simply don’t have anymore (and truth be told, probably didn’t as of the early 1980s).

I’m aware of at least three journalists (relying on the far more authoritative work of scientific consensus) who have embraced the message: Dahr Jamail, Thom Hartmann, and David Wallace-Wells. None to my knowledge has been able to bring himself to admit that humanity is now a collection of dead men walking. They can’t muster the courage to give up hope (or to report truthfully), clinging to the possibility we may still have a fleeting chance to avert disaster. I heard Ralph Nader on his webcast say something to the same effect, namely, what good is it to rob others of hope? My personal values adhere to unstinting truth rather than illusion or self-deception, so I subscribe to Guy McPherson‘s assessment that we face near-term human extinction (precise date unknown but soon if, for example, this the year we get a blue ocean event). Simply put, McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona [note my emphasis]. I trust his scholarship (summarizing the work of other scientists and drawing necessary though unpalatable conclusions) more than I trust journalistic shaping of the story for public consumption.

The obvious metaphor for what we face is a terminal medical diagnosis, or if one has hope, perhaps a death sentence about to be carried out but with the possibility of a last-minute stay of execution via phone call from the governor. Opinions vary whether one should hope/resist up to the final moment or make peace with one’s fate. By not telling the truth, I daresay the MSM has not given the public the second option by using the “I’ll be back” characterization when it’s really “Come with me ….” Various authors on the Web offer a better approximation of the truth (such as it can be known) and form a loose doomer network (a/k/a collapsniks). This blog is (an admittedly tiny) part of that doomersphere, which gives me no pleasure.

There is something ironic and vaguely tragic about how various Internet platforms — mostly search engines and social media networks — have unwittingly been thrust into roles their creators never envisioned for themselves. Unless I’m mistaken, they launched under the same business model as broadcast media: create content, or better yet, crowd-source content, to draw in viewers and subscribers whose attention is then delivered to advertisers. Revenue is derived from advertisers while the basic services — i.e., search, job networking, encyclopedias and dictionaries, or social connection — are given away gratis. The modest inconveniences and irritations of having the screen littered and interrupted with ads is a trade-off most end users are happy to accept for free content.

Along the way, some platform operators discovered that user data itself could be both aggregated and individualized and subsequently monetized. This second step unwittingly created so-called surveillance capitalism that Shoshana Zuboff writes about in her recently published book (previously blogged about it here). Essentially, an Orwellian Big Brother (several of them, in fact) tracks one’s activity through smart phone apps and Web browsers, including GPS data revealing movement through real space, not just virtual spaces. This is also the domain of the national security state from local law enforcement to the various security branches of the Federal government: dragnet surveillance where everyone is watched continuously. Again, end users shrug off surveillance as either no big deal or too late to resist.

The most recent step is that, like the Internet itself, various platforms have been functioning for some time already as public utilities and accordingly fallen under demand for regulation with regard to authenticity, truth, and community standards of allowable speech. Thus, private corporations have been thrust unexpectedly into the role of regulating content. Problem is, unlike broadcast networks that create their own content and can easily enforce restrictive standards, crowd-sourced platforms enable the general population to upload its own content, often mere commentary in text form but increasingly as video content, without any editorial review. These platforms have parried by deploying and/or modifying their preexisting surveillance algorithms in search of objectionable content normally protected as free speech and taken steps to remove content, demonetize channels, and ban offending users indefinitely, typically without warning and without appeal.

If Internet entrepreneurs initially got into the biz to make a few (or a lot of) quick billions, which some few of them have, they have by virtue of the global reach of their platforms been transformed into censors. It’s also curious that by enabling end uses to publish to their platforms, they’ve given voice to the masses in all their unwashed glory. Now, everyone’s crazy, radicalized uncle (or sibling or parent or BFF) formerly banished to obscurity railing against one thing or another at the local tavern, where he was tolerated as harmless so long as he kept his bar tab current, is proud to fly his freak flag anywhere and everywhere. Further, the anonymous coward who might issue death or bomb threats to denounce others has been given means to distribute hate across platforms and into the public sphere, where it gets picked up and maybe censored. Worst of all, the folks who monitor and decide what is allowed, functioning as modern-day thought police, are private citizens and corporations with no oversight or legal basis to act except for the fact that everything occurs on their respective platforms. This is a new aspect to the corporatocracy but not one anyone planned.

I’ve been on the sidelines of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) musicians’ union labor action — a strike now extending into its second month with no apparent resolution in sight — and reticent to take a strong position. This might be surprising considering that I’m a natural ally of the musicians in at least two respects: (1) my support for the labor movement in general, and (2) my sustained interest in classical music as both a listener and practitioner. On balance, I have two objections that hold me back: (1) difficulty empathizing with anyone already well compensated for his or her work (CSO base salary is more than $160K per year; many make considerably more), and (2) the argument that as a premier arts institution, the organization should take no heed of economic effects being felt universally and visited on many who actually suffer deprivations beyond lost prestige.

To buttress their position, the Musicians of the CSO (why do the musicians operate a website distinct from the organization as a whole?) issued a press release in late March 2019 (PDF link). I’ve no desire to analyze it paragraph-by-paragraph, but I want to bring a few bits forward:

For more than 50 years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been touted as the nation’s finest – able to draw talent from across the globe. [emphasis added]

Music is not a championship endeavor despite the plethora of televised lip-syncing singing contests. No one orchestra can lay reasonable claim to being the best. Smacks of hubris. Simply change that to “as among the nation’s finest” and I’m OK with it.

In the last seven years the Orchestra’s salary has not kept up with inflation. Further, the Orchestra’s benefit package has fallen behind that of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, the Association is attempting to change a fundamental tenet of the security of the Orchestra – and American life – our pension plan.

Well boo hoo for you. Many of the fundamental tenets of American life have been steadily stripped away from the population over the past 40 years or so. The very existence of a pension plan is exceptional for many in the labor force, not to mention the handsome salary and other benefits, including a 20-hour workweek, that CSO musicians enjoy. (Admittedly, a lot of outside preparation is necessary to participate effectively.) I understand that comparison with sister institutions in LA, SF, and NYC provide context, but cost of living differences at the coasts ought to be part of that context, too. Keeping up with the Joneses in this instance is a fool’s errand. And besides, those three cities suffer considerably with homeless and destitute populations that line the sidewalks and alleys. Chicago has somehow managed to displace most of its homeless population (mostly through harassment, not humanitarian aid), though one cannot avoid a phalanx of panhandlers outside Chicago Symphony Center on concert nights. Still, it’s nothing compared to conditions in downtown SF, which have gotten so bad with people living, peeing, and shitting in the street that an infamous poop map is available to help pedestrians avoid the worst of it. (I’ve no idea what the sidewalk outside Davies Symphony Hall in SF is like, but the location appears to be in the area of greatest poop concentration.) LA’s skid row is another district straight out of hell.

With many of the musicians already vested, our concern is truly about the future of the Orchestra – its ability to retain and attract great talent – a concern shared by Maestro Muti, Daniel Barenboim, and many of the world’s other finest orchestras and leaders.

This is not a concern of mine in the slightest. Sure, musicians play musical chairs, swapping around from orchestra to orchestra as opportunities arise, just like other workers traipse from job to job throughout their working lives. So what? A performing position with the CSO has long been a terminal position from which many players retire after more than 50 years of service (if they’re so fortunate to be hired by the orchestra in their 20s). I cannot estimate how many top-tier musicians forego auditions for the CSO due to perceived inadequacies with compensation or working conditions. Maybe that explains the years-long inability to hire and/or retain personnel for certain principal chairs. Still, I’m not convinced at all by “we’re the best yet we can’t compete without excessive compensation” (or shouldn’t have to). Similar arguments for ridiculously inflated CEO pay to attract qualified individuals fall on deaf ears.

An overview of the musicians’ strike was published by Lawrence A. Johnson at Chicago Classical Review, which provides details regarding the musicians’ demands. According to Johnson, the public’s initial support of the strike has turned sour. Comments I’ve been reading and my own reaction have followed exactly this trajectory. Lawrence also uses the term tone deaf to describe the musicians, though he’s diplomatic enough to avoid saying it himself, noting that the charge comes from commentators. I won’t be nearly so diplomatic. Musicians, stop this nonsense now! Demands far in excess of need, far in excess of typical workers’ compensation, and far in excess of your bargaining position do you no credit. In addition, although season ticket holders may express dismay at lost opportunities to hear certain concerts, soloists, and repertoire due to the work stoppage, the CSO is not a public utility that must keep working to maintain public wellbeing. Alternatives in greater Chicagoland can easily take up your slack for those in need of a classical music fix. Indeed, I haven’t been to a CSO concert in years because they’ve become anodyne. My CSO love affair is with the recorded legacy of the 1970s and 80s.

By striking, you’re creating a public relations nightmare that will drive people away, just as the baseball strike and take-a-knee controversy in football (and elsewhere) sent sports fans scrambling for the exits. You’re tone deaf regarding actual workplace and contract insufficiency many others confront regularly, as well as the economic realities of Chicago, Illinois, the U.S. and indeed the globe. Get over yourselves.

Throughout human history, the question “who should rule?” has been answered myriad ways. The most enduring answer is simple: he who can muster and deploy the most force of arms and then maintain control over those forces. Genghis Khan is probably the most outrageously successful example and is regarded by the West as a barbarian. Only slightly removed from barbarians is the so-called Big Man, who perhaps adds a layer of diplomacy by running a protection racket while selectively providing and distributing spoils. As societies move further away from subsistence and immediacy, various absolute rulers are established, often through hereditary title. Call them Caesar, chief, dear leader, emir, emperor (or empress), kaiser, king (or queen), pharaoh, premier, el presidente, sultan, suzerain, or tsar, they typically acquire power through the accident of birth and are dynastic. Some are female but most are male, and they typically extract tribute and sometimes demand loyalty oaths.

Post-Enlightenment, rulers are frequently democratically elected administrators (e.g., legislators, technocrats, autocrats, plutocrats, kleptocrats, and former military) ideally meant to be representative of common folks. In the U.S., members of Congress (and of course the President) are almost wholly drawn from the ranks of the wealthy (insufficient wealth being a de facto bar to office) and are accordingly estranged from American life the many different ways most of us experience it. Below the top level of visible, elected leaders is a large, hidden apparatus of high-level bureaucratic functionaries (often appointees), the so-called Deep State, that is relatively stable and made up primarily of well-educated, white-collar careerists whose ambitions for themselves and the country are often at odds with the citizenry.

I began to think about this in response to a rather irrational reply to an observation I made here. Actually, it wasn’t even originally my observation but that of Thomas Frank, namely, that the Deep State is largely made up of the liberal professional class. The reply reinforced the notion who better to rule than the “pros”? History makes the alternatives unthinkable. Thus, the Deep State’s response to the veritable one-man barbarian invasion of the Oval Office has been to seek removal of the interloper by hook or by crook. (High office in this case was won unexpectedly and with unnamed precedent by rhetorical force — base populism — rather than by military coup, making the current occupant a quasi-cult leader; similarly, extracted tribute is merely gawking attention rather than riches.)

History also reveals that all forms of political organization suffer endemic incompetence and corruption, lending truth to Winston Churchill’s witticism “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Indeed, recent rule by technocrats has been supremely awful, leading to periodic market crashes, extreme wealth inequality, social stigmatization, and forever wars. Life under such rule is arguably better than under various other political styles; after all, we gots our vaunted freedoms and enviable material comforts. But the exercise of those freedoms does not reliably deliver either ontological security or psychological certainty we humans crave. In truth, our current form of self-governance has let nothing get in the way of plundering the planet for short-term profit. That ongoing priority is making Earth uninhabitable not just for other species but for humans, too. In light of this fact, liberal technocratic democracy could be a far worse failure than most: it will have killed billions (an inevitability now under delayed effect).

Two new grassroots movements (to my knowledge) have appeared that openly question who should rule: the Sunrise Movement (SM) and the Extinction Rebellion (ER). SM is a youth political movement in the U.S. that acknowledges climate change and supports the Green New Deal as a way of prioritizing the desperate existential threat modern politics and society have become. For now at least, SM appears to be content with working within the system, replacing incumbents with candidates it supports. More intensely, ER is a global movement centered in the U.K. that also acknowledges that familiar modern forms of social and political organization (there are several) no longer function but in fact threaten all of us with, well, extinction. One of its unique demands is that legislatures be drawn via sortition from the general population to be more representative of the people. Further, sortition avoids the established pattern of those elected to lead representational governments from being corrupted by the very process of seeking and attaining office.

I surmise attrition and/or replacement (the SM path) are too slow and leave candidates vulnerable to corruption. In addition, since no one relinquishes power willingly, current leaders will have to be forced out via open rebellion (the ER path). I’m willing to entertain either path but must sadly conclude that both are too little, too late to address climate change and near-term extinction effectively. Though difficult to establish convincingly, I suspect the time to act was in the 1970s (or even before) when the Ecology Movement arose in recognition that we cannot continue to despoil our own habitat without consequence. That message (social, political, economic, and scientific all at once) was as inert then as it is now. However, fatalism acknowledged, some other path forward is better than our current systems of rule.

Everyone is familiar with the convention in entertainment media where characters speak without the use of recognizable language. (Not related really to the convention of talking animals.) The first instance I can recall (someone correct me if earlier examples are to be found) is the happy-go-lucky bird Woodstock from the old Peanuts cartoons (do kids still recognize that cast of characters?), whose dialog was shown graphically as a series of vertical lines:

When the cartoon made its way onto TV for holiday specials, its creator Charles Schultz used the same convention to depict adults, never shown onscreen but with dialogue voiced by a Harmon-muted trombone. Roughly a decade later, two characters from the Star Wars franchise “spoke” in languages only other Star Wars characters could understand, namely, Chebacca (Chewie) and R2D2. More recently, the character Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (known to me only through the Marvel movie franchise, not through comic books) speaks only one line of dialogue, “I am Groot,” which is understood as full speech by others Guardians characters. When behemoths larger than a school bus (King Kong, Godzilla, Jurassic dinosaurs, Cloverfield, Kaiju, etc.) appear, the characters are typically denied the power of speech beyond the equivalent of a lion’s roar. (True villains talk little or not at all as they go about their machinations — no monologuing! unless it’s a James Bond film. An exception notable for its failure to charm audiences is Ultron, who wouldn’t STFU. You can decide for yourself which is the worse kind of villainy.)

This convention works well enough for storytelling and has the advantage of allowing the reader/viewer to project onto otherwise blank speech. However, when imported into the real world, especially in politics, the convention founders. There is no Babelfish universal translator inserted in the ear to transform nonsense into coherence. The obvious example of babblespeech is 45, whose speech when off the teleprompter is a series of rambling non sequiturs, free associations, slogans, and sales pitches. Transcripts of anyone’s extemporaneous speech reveal lots of restarts and blind alleys; we all interrupt ourselves to redirect. However, word salad that substitutes for meaningful content in 45’s case is tragicomic: alternately entirely frustrating or comically entertaining depending on one’s objective. Satirical news shows fall into the second category.

45 is certainly not the first. Sarah Palin in her time as a media darling (driver of ratings and butt of jokes — sound familiar?) had a knack for crazy speech combinations that were utter horseshit yet oddly effective for some credulous voters. She was even a hero to some (nearly a heartbeat away from being the very first PILF). We’ve also now been treated to a series of public interrogations where a candidate for a cabinet post or an accused criminal offers testimony before a congressional panel. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos famously evaded simple yes/no questions during her confirmation hearing, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh similarly refused to provide direct answers to direct questions. Unexpectedly, sacrificial lamb Michael Cohen does give direct answers to many questions, but his interlocutors then don’t quite know how to respond considering their experience and expectation that no one answers appropriately.

What all this demonstrates is that there is often a wide gulf between what is said and what is heard. In the absence of what might be understood as effective communication (honest, truthful, and forthright), audiences and voters fill in the blanks. Ironically, we also can’t handle hear too much truth when confronted by its awfulness. None of this is a problem in storytelling, but when found in politic narratives, it’s emblematic of how dysfunctional our communications have become, and with them, the clear thought and principled activity of governance.

First, a bit of history. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788 and superseded the Articles of Confederation. The first ten Amendments, ratified in 1791 (rather quickly after the initial drafting and adoption of the main document — oops, forgot these obvious assumptions), are known as the Bill of Rights. The final amendment to date, the 27th Amendment, though proposed in 1789 along with others, was not ratified until 1992. A half dozen additional amendments approved by Congress have not yet been ratified, and a large number of other unapproved amendments have been proposed.

The received wisdom is that, by virtue of its lengthy service as the supreme law of the land, the U.S. Constitution has become sacrosanct and invulnerable to significant criticism and further amendment. That wisdom has begun to be questioned actively as a result of (at least) two factors: (1) recognition that the Federal government serves the common good and citizenry rather poorly, having become corrupt and dysfunctional, and (2) the Electoral College, an anachronism from the Revolutionary Era that skews voting power away from cities, handed two recent presidential elections to candidates who failed to win the popular vote yet won in the Electoral College. For a numerical analysis of how electoral politics is gamed to subvert public opinion, resulting in more government seats held by Republicans than voting (expressing the will of the people) would indicate, see this article by the Brookings Institute.

These are issues of political philosophy and ongoing public debate, spurred by dissatisfaction over periodic Federal shutdowns, power struggles between the executive and legislative branches that are tantamount to holding each other hostage, and income inequality that pools wealth and power in the hands of ever fewer people. The judicial branch (especially the U.S. Supreme Court) is also a significant point of contention; its newly appointed members are increasingly right wing but have not (yet) taken openly activist roles (e.g., reversing Roe v. Wade). As philosophy, questioning the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution requires considerable knowledge of history and comparative government to undertake with equanimity (as opposed to emotionalism). I don’t possess such expert knowledge but will observe that the U.S. is an outlier among nations in relying on a centuries-old constitution, which may not have been the expectation or intent of the drafters.

It might be too strong to suggest just yet that the public feels betrayed by its institutions. Better to say that, for instance, the U.S. Constitution is now regarded as a flawed document — not for its day (with limited Federal powers) but for the needs of today (where the Federal apparatus, including the giant military, has grown into a leviathan). This would explain renewed interest in direct democracy (as opposed to representative government), flirtations with socialism (expanded over the blended system we already have), and open calls for revolution to remove a de facto corporatocracy. Whether the U.S. Constitution can or should survive these challenges is the question.

Some while back, Scott Adams (my general disdain for him noted but unexpanded, since I’m not in the habit of shitting on people), using his knowledge of hypnosis, began pushing the string selling the narrative that our Commander-in-Chief is cannily adept at the art of persuasion. I, for one, am persuaded by neither Adams nor 45 but must admit that many others are. Constant shilling for control of narratives by agents of all sorts could not be more transparent (for me at least), rendering the whole enterprise null. Similarly, when I see an advertisement (infrequently, I might add, since I use ad blockers and don’t watch broadcast TV or news programs), I’m rarely inclined to seek more information or make a purchase. Once in a long while, an ad creeps through my defenses and hits one of my interests, and even then, I rarely respond because, duh, it’s an ad.

In the embedded video below, Stuart Ewen describes how some learned to exploit a feature (not a bug) in human cognition, namely, appeals to emotion that overwhelm rational response. The most obvious, well-worn example is striking fear into people’s hearts and minds to convince them of an illusion of safety necessitating relinquishing civil liberties and/or fighting foreign wars.

The way Ewen uses the term consciousness differs from the way I use it. He refers specifically to opinion- and decision-making (the very things vulnerable to manipulation) rather than the more generalized and puzzling property of having an individual identity or mind and with it self-awareness. In fact, Ewen uses the terms consciousness industry and persuasion industry instead of public relations and marketing to name those who spin information and thus public discourse. At some level, absolutely everyone is guilty of seeking to persuade others, which again is a basic feature of communication. (Anyone negotiating the purchase of, say, a new or used car faces the persuasion of the sales agent with some skepticism.) What turns it into something maniacal is using lies and fabrication to advance agendas against the public interest, especially where public opinion is already clear.

Ewen also points to early 20th-century American history, where political leaders and marketers were successful in manipulating mass psychology in at least three ways: 1. drawing the pacifist U.S. public into two world wars of European origin, 2. transforming citizens into consumers, thereby saving capitalism from its inherently self-destructive endgame (creeping up on us yet again), and 3. suppressing emergent collectivism, namely, socialism. Of course, unionism as a collectivist institution still gained considerable strength but only within the larger context of capitalism, e.g., achieving the American Dream in purely financial terms.

So getting back to Scott Adams’ argument, the notion that the American public is under some form of mass hypnosis (persuasion) and that 45 is the master puppeteer is perhaps half true. Societies do sometimes go mad and fall under the spell of a mania or cult leader. But 45 is not the driver of the current episode, merely the embodiment. I wouldn’t say that 45 figured out anything because that awards too much credit to presumed understanding and planning. Rather, he worked out (accidentally and intuitively — really by default considering his job in 2016) that his peculiar self-as-brand could be applied to politics by treating it all as reality TV, which by now everyone knows is its own weird unreality the same way professional wrestling is fundamentally unreal. (The term political theater applies here.) He demonstrated a knack (at best) for keeping the focus firmly on himself and driving ratings (abetted by the mainstream media that had long regarded him as a clown or joke), but those objectives were never really in service of a larger political vision. In effect, the circus brought to town offers its own bizarre constructed narrative, but its principle characteristic is gawking, slack-jawed, made-you-look narcissism, not any sort of proper guidance or governance.

Have to admit, when I first saw this brief article about middle school kids being enrolled in mandatory firearms safety classes, my gut response was something sarcastic to the effect “No, this won’t end badly at all ….” Second thought (upon reading the headline alone) was that it had to be Texas. Now that I’ve calmed down some, both responses are no longer primary in my thinking.

I’ve written before about perception and function of guns of differing types. I daresay that little clarity has been achieved on the issue, especially because a gun is no longer understood as a tool (with all the manifold purposes that might entail) but is instead always a weapon (both offensive and defensive). The general assumption is that anyone brandishing a weapon (as in open carry) is preparing to use it imminently (so shoot first!). A corollary is that anyone merely owning a gun is similarly prepared but only in the early, hypothetical, or contingent stages. These are not entirely fair assumptions but demonstrate how our perception of the tool has frequently shifted over toward emotionalism.

My father’s generation may be among the last without specialized training (e.g., hunters and those having served in the military) who retain the sense of a gun being a tool, both of which still account for quite a lot of people. Periodic chain e-mails sometimes point out that students (especially at rural and collar county schools) used to bring guns to school to stow in their lockers for after-school use with Gun Club. I’d say “imagine doing that now” except that Iowa is doing just that, though my guess is that the guns are stored more securely than a student locker. Thus, exposure to gun safety/handling and target practice may remove some of the stigma assigned to the tool as well as teach students respect for the tool.

Personally, I’ve had limited exposure to guns and tend to default (unthinkingly, reflexively) to what I regard as a liberal/progressive left opinion that I don’t want to own a gun and that guns should be better regulated to stem gun violence. However, only a little circumspection is needed to puncture that one-size-fits-all bubble. And as with so many complicated issues of the day, it’s a little hard to know what to wish for or to presume that I have the wisdom to know better than others. Maybe Iowa has it right and this may not end so badly.

As I reread what I wrote 2.5 years ago in my first blog on this topic, I surmise that the only update needed to my initial assessment is a growing pile of events that demonstrate my thesis: our corrupted information environment is too taxing on human cognition, with the result that a small but growing segment of society gets radicalized (wound up like a spring) and relatively random individuals inevitably pop, typically in a self-annihilating gush of violence. News reports bear this out periodically, as one lone-wolf kook after another takes it upon himself (are there any examples of females doing this?) to shoot or blow up some target, typically chosen irrationally or randomly though for symbolic effect. More journalists and bloggers are taking note of this activity and evolving or resurrecting nomenclature to describe it.

The earliest example I’ve found offering nomenclature for this phenomenon is a blog with a single post from 2011 (oddly, no follow-up) describing so-called stochastic terrorism. Other terms include syntactic violence, semantic violence, and epistemic violence, but they all revolve around the same point. Whether on the sending or receiving end of communications, some individuals are particularly adept at or sensitive to dog whistles that over time activate and exacerbate tendencies toward radical ideology and violence. Wired has a brief article from a few days ago discussing stochastic terrorism as jargon, which is basically what I’m doing here. Admittedly, the last of these terms, epistemic violence (alternative: epistemological violence), ranges farther afield from the end effect I’m calling wind-up toys. For instance, this article discussing structural violence is much more academic in character than when I blogged on the same term (one of a handful of “greatest hits” for this blog that return search-engine hits with some regularity). Indeed, just about any of my themes and topics can be given a dry, academic treatment. That’s not my approach (I gather opinions differ on this account, but I insist that real academic work is fundamentally different from my armchair cultural criticism), but it’s entirely valid despite being a bit remote for most readers. One can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of analysis.

If indeed it’s mere words and rhetoric that transform otherwise normal people into criminals and mass murderers, then I suppose I can understand the distorted logic of the far Left that equates words and rhetoric themselves with violence, followed by the demand that they be provided with warnings and safe spaces lest they be triggered by what they hear, read, or learn. As I understand it, the fear is not so much that vulnerable, credulous folks will be magically turned into automatons wound up and set loose in public to enact violent agendas but instead that virulent ideas and knowledge (including many awful truths of history) might cause discomfort and psychological collapse akin to what happens to when targets of hate speech and death threats are reduced, say, to quivering agoraphobia. Desire for protection from harm is thus understandable. The problem with such logic, though, is that protections immediately run afoul of free speech, a hallowed but misunderstood American institution that preempts quite a few restrictions many would have placed on the public sphere. Protections also stall learning and truth-seeking straight out of the gate. And besides, preemption of preemption doesn’t work.

In information theory, the notion of a caustic idea taking hold of an unwilling person and having its wicked way with him or her is what’s called a mind virus or meme. The viral metaphor accounts for the infectious nature of ideas as they propagate through the culture. For instance, every once in a while, a charismatic cult emerges and inducts new members, a suicide cluster appears, or suburban housewives develop wildly disproportionate phobias about Muslims or immigrants (or worse, Muslim immigrants!) poised at their doorsteps with intentions of rape and murder. Inflaming these phobias, often done by pundits and politicians, is precisely the point of semantic violence. Everyone is targeted but only a few are affected to the extreme of acting out violently. Milder but still invalid responses include the usual bigotries: nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of tribalism, “othering,” or xenophobia that seek to insulate oneself safely among like folks.

Extending the viral metaphor, to protect oneself from infectious ideas requires exposure, not insulation. Think of it as a healthy immune system built up gradually, typically early in life, through slow, steady exposure to harm. The alternative is hiding oneself away from germs and disease, which has the ironic result of weakening the immune system. For instance, I learned recently that peanut allergies can be overcome by gradual exposure — a desensitization process — but are exacerbated by removal of peanuts from one’s environment and/or diet. This is what folks mean when they say the answer to hate speech is yet more (free) speech. The nasty stuff can’t be dealt with properly when it’s quarantined, hidden away, suppressed, or criminalized. Maybe there are exceptions. Science fiction entertains those dangers with some regularity, where minds are shunted aside to become hosts for invaders of some sort. That might be overstating the danger somewhat, but violent eruptions may provide some credence.