Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

A few months ago, I discovered David Hurwitz’s YouTube channel, which offers reviews of classical music recordings (as opposed to live concerts). Hurwitz shares with me (or is it the other way around?) an apparent fascination with the German symphonic repertoire. As executive editor of Classics Today, he has access to a far wider discography and, for purposes of comparison, delves into historical recordings from the 1930s to 60s far more thoroughly than I do. He deplores streaming services (I do, too), preferring physical media, though I will admit I stream plenty of recordings I don’t (yet) own, primarily to make a purchasing decision. (It’s a little weird that so much of the recorded repertoire is available to stream, essentially for free.) My opinions about specific recordings (orchestras, soloists, conductors) vary widely from those of Hurwitz, which is just fine since I’m not a newbie in need of guidance. Still, Hurwitz always has interesting things to say and some biases I find inexplicable.

Having heard quite a lot of Hurwitz’s discussions of various symphony cycles, I was prompted to go back and listen to discs (both LPs and CDs) not spun in a while. Just yesterday, I recovered a startling memory, namely, that in my early adulthood (pre-Internet), releases of new recordings were not publicized and it was only when one appeared in record stores (remember them?) that I was caught between the horns of an obvious dilemma: whether to purchase (with my rather limited funds) or defer. More importantly, I recalled febrile excitement when something appeared I really, really wanted to hear and own. On more than a few occasions, I had to prioritize and/or sacrifice in order to obtain to the venerated object(s), something less true now than then. Leaving something behind was disappointing but inevitable.

That singular excitement felt at the availability of some new objet d’art is commonplace in various fandoms, though individual tastes and predilections channel people toward different things. For instance, I’ve never camped out or even queued for the initial release of a new model iPhone (back in the day, derisively called the “Jesus phone”). Nor do I attend the opening night of a new movie out of a desire to be among the first viewers. Overpaying for tickets to a championship sporting event doesn’t appeal to me. I also don’t pay for pointless upgrades (e.g., airline tickets, valet parking) that function more as markers of status than as desirable, enhanced services. However, for many others, these are the venerated objects and services for which they are prepared to pay and/or sacrifice — sometimes quite a lot.

Age and wealth inform the calculus. The heightened emotionalism of my youth has been alleviated over the decades so that I now only infrequently venerate some object or experience. It’s too exhausting, but back when I had an abundance of emotional energy, it was commonplace. Also, had I the wealth to simply obtain everything I ever wanted without deferral or sacrifice, it’s not clear that anything would have gained special significance bordering on the sacred. This may well be one of the inevitable pitfalls of excess wealth: draining meaning out of things others are able enjoy with enthusiasm precisely because of scarcity or hardship.

Reflecting on these ideas, I also realized that there is still one category of venerated object for which I lust. It’s not a branded fashion item, luxury German sedan, pampered vacation, or second home on a secluded lake somewhere. Those are arguably within my reach but tend to be the domains of others far better situated financially than am I. No, my remaining venerated objects are obvious given what I’ve written above: high-end audio components. Whereas most recordings are quite easily obtained for less than what is now spent on a typical fast-food combo meal, the truly exceptional high-end audio I venerate starts around $15k and climbs from there. As with all luxury goods, diminishing returns set in early despite considerable emotional investment, so I have settled instead on an audiophile middle tier that frankly puts to shame the degraded listening environments most are only too happy to accept, typically out of ignorance and under-developed taste. Their veneration is projected onto other things.

For this blog post, let me offer short and long versions of the assertion and argument, of which one of Caitlin Johnstone’s many aphorisms is the short one:

Short version: Modern mainstream feminism is just one big celebration of the idea that women can murder, predate, oppress, and exploit for power and profit just as well as any man.

Long version: Depicting strength in terms of quintessential masculine characteristics is ruining (fictional) storytelling. (Offenders in contemporary cinema and streaming will go unnamed, but examples abound now that the strong-female-lead meme has overwhelmed characters, plots, and stories. Gawd, I tire of it.) One could survey the past few decades to identify ostensibly strong women basically behaving like asshole men just to — what? — show that it can be done? Is this somehow better than misogynist depictions of characters using feminine wiles (euphemism alert) to get what they want? These options coexist today, plus some mixture of the two. However, the main reason the strong female lead fails as storytelling — punching, fighting, and shooting toe-to-toe with men — is that it bears little resemblance to reality.

In sports (combat sports especially), men and women are simply not equally equipped for reasons physiological, not ideological. Running, jumping, throwing, swinging, and punching in any sport where speed and power are principal attributes favors male physiology. Exceptions under extraordinary conditions (i.e., ultradistance running) only demonstrate the rule. Sure, a well-trained and -conditioned female in her prime can beat and/or defeat an untrained and poorly conditioned male. If one of those MMA females came after me, I’d be toast because I’m entirely untrained and I’m well beyond the age of a cage fighter. But that’s not what’s usually depicted onscreen. Instead, it’s one badass going up against another badass, trading blows until a victor emerges. If the female is understood as the righteous one, she is typically shown victorious despite the egregious mismatch.

Nonadherence to reality can be entertaining, I suppose, which might explain why the past two decades have delivered so many overpowered superheroes and strong female leads, both of which are quickly becoming jokes and producing backlash. Do others share my concern that, as fiction bleeds into reality, credulous women might be influenced by what they see onscreen to engage recklessly in fights with men (or for that matter, other women)? Undoubtedly, a gallant or chivalrous man would take a few shots before fighting back, but if not felled quickly, my expectation is that the fight is far more likely to go very badly for the female. Moreover, what sort of message does it communicate to have females engaging in violence and inflicting their will on others, whether in the service of justice or otherwise? That’s the patriarchy in a nutshell. Rebranding matriarchal social norms in terms of negative male characteristics, even for entertainment purposes, serves no one particularly well. I wonder if hindsight will prompt the questions “what on Earth were we thinking?” Considering how human culture is stuck in permanent adolescence, I rather doubt it.

Watched Everything Everywhere All at Once (DVD version) at home on my TV, which is where I see most films these days. Very few inspire me to trek to the theater anymore to overpay for seats and popcorn. Was pleased to enjoy this film quite a bit — at least before turning an analytical eye toward it. Let me provide a fun, glossy assessment before getting bogged down in troublesome detail.

The film introduces and trades heavily on characters from a supposed multiverse (a multitude of parallel universes branching indiscreetly from arbitrary decision points into an infinity of possibilities) “verse-jumping” into our universe to fix and repair damage done in one or more of the others. As plot devices go, this one is now quite commonplace and always (perhaps inevitably, given our preoccupation with ourselves) positions our universe (the only one we know until someone from outside intrudes) at the center of the others and as the linchpin in some grand plan to save the space-time continuum. It’s a worn trope yet allows storytellers immense freedom to conjure anything imaginable. Everything depicts disorienting alternative universes quite well, most of them (for no particular reason beyond having fun, I surmise) absurd variations of the familiar. Indeed, unlike most films where I sit in stone silence no matter what is presented, this one generated laugh-out-loud moments and gestures across the couch to the effect “did you see that?” In short, what that means is the film produced reflexive responses (it goosed me), which is quite unusual considering how most films, despite lots of overwrought action and drama, fail to register more than a checkbox “yup, got it.”

Actors portraying the three or four main characters do well in their respective jobs, playing several versions of themselves from different universes with diverse experiences. Most of the film is chase-and-evade, devolving at times into a familiar martial-arts punchfest that has frankly lost all possibility of making an impact in the era of overpowered, invulnerable superheros and magical unpredictability. Why filmmakers believe audiences want to see more of this drivel is beyond me, but I guess the animal curiosity to find out which make-believe character will prevail in a battle royale never gets old with mouth-breathers. I’m quite over it. The central conflict, however, wasn’t about the strongest punch. Rather, it was about persisting in the face of revealed meaninglessness a/k/a nihilism.

So here’s where hindsight analysis kinda ruined things for me. Although I recognize storytelling as elemental to modern cognition and consciousness, I don’t regard most narrative forms as art. Cinema, because of its financial interests and collaborative nature, rarely rises to the level of art. There are simply too many diverse elements that must be assembled under a unified aesthetic vision for that to occur often. Cinema is thus more entertainment than art, just like sports and games are entertainment, not art. Impressive skill may be demonstrated, which often produces enjoyable results, but I don’t conflate skill or mere craft with artistry. (I also tire of everything that provides moral and epistemological orientation being conflated with religion). So when films introduce super-serious subjects that really trouble me (e.g., overpopulation, institutional corruption, the climate emergency) but treat them lightly, I’m bothered. Everything does that with philosophy.

Coming to grips with nihilism and the absurdity of existence is the central feature of more than one 20th-century philosophy (and their variants). Downstream (or parallel?) are artistic genres that also express the idea, though in far less overt terms. One can easily get lost down a hole, seeking the bottom (alternatively, the root of things) but finding only the abyss. For that very reason, I have acquaintance with philosophical themes but have not truly sunk into them deeply. Nihilism is not something to mess with, even as a thought experiment or intellectual inquiry — especially if one is inclined to connect strongly with those same things. In Everything, the nihilist conclusion (i.e., that nothing matters) manifests absurdly as a giant, black, everything bagel that can literally suck a person into its hole. Well and good enough; probably best not to overexplain that McGuffin. But it demands a conclusion or resolution, which comes in the form of the mother rescuing the daughter. Ironically, it was the mother (from an alternative universe) who had introduced the daughter (also an alternative) to verse-jumping, who then (the daughter) got lost down the hole and threatened to collapse the multiverse into the everything bagel in a final gesture of despair. In effect, the mother had tinkered with powers well beyond her control, unwittingly created the daughter-monster with out-of-control feeling and unexpected powers, and had to clean up her own mess. How does she (the mother) do it? Through the power of love.

OK, fine. Love (especially unconditional love, as opposed to romantic or familial love) is a universal salve capable of healing all wounds. Except that it’s not. When the film finally depicts the rescue, saving the daughter and multiverse from destruction, it comes across as flat, obvious, and ineffectual (to me at least) and breaks the tone and pacing of the film. Lots of films resort to the power of love to save the day (typically just before the stroke of midnight), but they usually (not always) have better set-ups, which is to say, their film universes cohere and deliver cogent conclusions rather than waving a magic love-wand over everything to solve and resolve. The writers of this film are adept at the enjoyable absurd parts that launch and propel the story but could not stick the landing. Introducing (albeit comically) doomsday philosophy but then failing to treat it seriously enough left me deeply conflicted and dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s a case where my suspension of disbelief was not complete enough. Or maybe I brought too much into the film from outside, but we all have inescapable frames of reference. I wasn’t exactly triggered, merely frustrated. YMMV

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.

/rant on

One of my personal favorites among my own blog posts is my remapping of the familiar Rock, Paper, Scissors contest to Strong, Stupid, and Smart, respectively. In that post, I concluding (among other things) that, despite a supposedly equal three-way power dynamic, in the long run, nothing beats stupid. I’ve been puzzling recently over this weird dynamic in anticipation of a mass exodus of boomers from the labor force as they age into retirement (or simply die off). (Digression about the ruling gerontocracy withheld.) It’s not by any stretch clear that their younger cohorts divided into not-so-cleverly named demographics are prepared to bring competence or work ethic to bear on labor needs, which includes job descriptions ranging across the spectrum from blue collar to white collar to bona fide expert.

Before being accused of ageism and boomerism, I don’t regard the issue as primarily a function of age but rather as a result of gradual erosion of educational standards that has now reached such a startling level of degradation that many American institutions are frankly unable to accomplish their basic missions for lack of qualified, competent, engaged workers and managers. See, for example, this Gallup poll showing how confidence in U.S. institutions is ebbing. Curious that the U.S. Congress is at the very bottom, followed closely and unsurprisingly by the TV news. Although the poll only shows year-over-year decline, it’s probably fair to say that overall consensus is that institutions simply cannot be relied upon anymore to do their jobs effectively. I’ve believed that for some time about Cabinet-level agencies that, administration after administration, never manage to improve worsening conditions that are the very reason for their existence. Some of those failures are arguably because solutions to issues simply do not exist (such as with the renewed energy crisis or the climate emergency). But when addressing concerns below the level of global civilization, my suspicion is that failure is the result of a combination of corruption (including careerism) and sheer incompetence.

The quintessential example came to my attention in the embedded YouTube video, which spells out in gruesome detail how schools of education are wickedly distorted by ideologues pushing agendas that don’t produce either better educational results or social justice. Typically, it’s quite the reverse.

In short, school administrators and curriculum designers are incompetent boobs (much like many elected government officials) possessed of decision-making authority who have managed to quell dissent among the ranks precisely because many who know better are invested in careers and pension programs that would be sacrificed in order to call bullshit on insane things now being forced on everyone within those institutions. Those of us who attended college often witnessed how, over the course of several decades, faculties have essentially caved repeatedly on issues where administrators acted in contravention of respectable educational goals and policies. Fortitude to resist is not in abundance for reasons quite easy to understand. Here’s one cry from the wilderness by a college professor retiring early to escape the madness. One surmises that whoever is hired as a replacement will check a number of boxes, including compliance with administrative diktats.

Viewpoint diversity may well be the central value being jettisoned, along with the ability to think clearly. If cultism is truly the correct characterization, administrators have adopted an open agenda of social reform and appear to believe that they, uniquely, have arrived at the correct answers (final solutions?) to be brainwashed into both teachers and students as doctrine. Of course, revolutions are launched on the strength of such misguided convictions, often purging resistance violently and revealing that best intentions matter little in the hellscapes that follow. But on the short term, the basic program is to silent dissent, as though banishing disallowed thinking from the public sphere collapses viewpoint diversity. Nope, sorry. That’s not how cognition works except in totalitarian regimes that remove all awareness of options and interpretations we in open societies currently take for granted. It’s barking mad, for instance, to think that all the propaganda flung at the American public about, say, the proxy war in Ukraine is truly capable of buffaloing the entire population into believing we (the U.S. and NATO) are the good guys in the conflict. (There are no goods guys.) Even the Chinese government, with its restricted Internet and social credit system, can’t squelch entirely the yearning to think and breathe freely. Instead, that’s the domain of North Korea, which only despots hold up as a salutary model.

My point, which bears reiteration, is that poorly educated, miseducated, and uneducated ignoramuses (the ignorati, whose numbers have swelled) in positions of power and influence embody precisely the unmovable, unreachable, slow, grinding stupidity that can’t be overcome by knowledge, understanding, expertise, or appeals to reason and good faith. Stupid people don’t know just how stupid they are but sally forth with blind confidence in themselves, and their abject stupidity becomes like kryptonite used to weaken others. One can use smarts (scissors) once in a while to cut through stupidity (paper), but in the end, nothing beats stupid.

/rant off

Search the tag Counter-Enlightenment at the footer of this blog to find roughly ten disparate blog posts, all circling around the idea that intellectual history, despite all the obvious goodies trucked in with science and technology, is turning decidedly away from long-established Enlightenment values. A fair number of resources are available online and in book form exploring various movements against the Enlightenment over the past few centuries, none of which I have consulted. Instead, I picked up Daniel Schwindt’s The Case Against the Modern World: A Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016), which was gifted to me. The book was otherwise unlikely to attract my attention considering that Schwindt takes Catholicism as a starting point whereas I’m an avowed atheist, though with no particular desire to proselytize or attempt to convince others of anything. However, The Case Against is suffused with curious ideas, so it is a good subject for a new book blogging project, which in characteristic fashion (for me) will likely proceed in fits and starts.

Two interrelated ideas Schwindt puts forward early in the book fit with multiple themes of this blog, namely, (1) the discovery and/or development of the self (I refer more regularly to consciousness) and (2) the reductive compartmentalization of thought and behavior. Let’s take them in order. Here’s a capsule of the first issue:

(more…)

Most poets in the West believe that some sort of democracy is preferable to any sort of totalitarian state and accept certain political obligations … but I cannot think of a single poet of consequence whose work does not, either directly or by implication, condemn modern civilisation as an irremediable mistake, a bad world which we have to endure because it is there and no one knows how it could be made into a better one, but in which we can only retain our humanity in the degree to which we resist its pressures. — W.H. Auden

A while back, I made an oblique reference (a comment elsewhere, no link) to a famous Krishnamurti quote: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Taken on its face, who would agree to be swept up in the madness and absurdity of any given historical moment? Turns out, almost everyone — even if that means self-destruction. The brief reply to my comment was along the lines of “Why shouldn’t you or I also make mental adjustments to prevailing sickness to obtain peace of mind and tranquility amidst the tumult?” Such an inversion of what seems to me right, proper, and acceptable caused me to reflect and recall the satirical movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The full title is not often given, but the forgotten second part is what’s instructive (e.g., mutually assured destruction: MAD). Events spinning out of control? Nothing any individual can do to restore sanity? Stop squirming and embrace it.

That’s one option when faced with the prospect of futile resistance, I suppose. Give in, succumb, and join the party (more like a rager since the beginning of the Cold War). I also recognize that I’m not special enough to warrant any particular consideration for my intransigence. Yet it feels like self-betrayal to abandon the good character I’ve struggled (with mixed success) to build and maintain over the course of a lifetime. Why chuck all that now? Distinguishing character growth from decay it not always so simple. In addition, given my openness to new ideas and interpretations, established bodies of thought (often cultural consensus) are sometimes upended and destabilized by someone arguing cogently for or against something settled and unexamined for a long time. And then there is the epistemological crisis that has rendered sense-making nearly impossible. That crisis is intensified by a variety of character types acting in bad faith to pollute the public sphere and drive false narratives.

For instance, the show trial public hearings just begun regarding the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol (or whatever it’s being called, I prefer “Storming of the Capitol”) are commonly understood, at least from one side of the political spectrum, as a deliberate and brazen attempt to brainwash the public. I decline to tune in. But that doesn’t mean my opinions on that topic are secure any more than I know how true and accurate was the 2020 election that preceded and sparked the Jan. 6 attack. Multiple accounts of the election and subsequent attack aim to convert me (opinion-wise) to one exclusive narrative or another, but I have no way to evaluate narrative claims beyond whatever noise reaches me through the mainstream media I try to ignore. Indeed, those in the streets and Capitol building on Jan. 6 were arguably swept into a narrative maelstrom that provoked a fairly radical if ultimately harmless event. No one knew at the time, of course, exactly how it would play out.

So that’s the current state of play. Ridiculous, absurd events, each with competing narratives, have become the new normal. Yours facts and beliefs do daily battle with my facts and beliefs in an ideological battle of all against all — at least until individuals form into tribes declare their political identity and join that absurdity.

Cynics knew it was inevitable: weaponized drones and robots. Axon Enterprises, Inc., maker of police weaponry (euphemistically termed “public safety technologies”), announced its development of taser equipped drones presumed capable of neutralizing an active shooter inside of 60 seconds. Who knows what sorts of operating parameters restrict their functions or if they can be made invulnerable to hacking or disallowed use as offensive weapons?

A sane, civilized society would recognize that, despite bogus memes about an armed society being a polite society, the prospect of everyone being strapped (like the fabled Old American West) and public spaces (schools, churches, post offices, laundromats, etc.) each being outfitted with neutralizing technologies is fixing the wrong problem. But we are no longer a sane society (begging the question whether we ever were). So let me suggest something radical yet obvious: the problem is not technological, it’s cultural. The modern world has made no progress with respect to indifference toward the suffering of others. Dehumanizing attitudes and technologies are no longer, well, medieval, but they’re no less cruel. For instance, people are not put in public stocks or drawn and quartered anymore, but they are shamed, cancelled, tortured, terrorized, propagandized, and abandoned in other ways that allow maniacs to pretend to others and to themselves that they are part of the solution. Hard to believe that one could now feel nostalgia for the days when, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, calls for gun control were met with inaction (other then empty rhetoric) rather than escalation.

The problem with diagnosing the problem as cultural is that no one is in control. Like water, culture goes where it goes and apparently sinks to its lowest ebb. Attempts to channel, direct, and uplift culture might work on a small scale, but at the level of society — and with distorted incentives freedom is certain to deliver — malefactors are guaranteed to appear. Indeed, anything that contributes to the arms race (now tiny, remote-controlled, networked killing devices rather than giant atomic/nuclear ones) only invites greater harm and is not a solution. Those maniacs (social and technical engineers promising safety) have the wrong things wrong.

Small, insular societies with strict internal codes of conduct may have figured out something that large, free societies have not, namely, that mutual respect, knowable communities, and repudiation of advanced technologies give individuals something and someone to care about, a place to belong, and things to do. When the entire world is thrown open, such as with social media, populations become atomized and anonymized, unable to position or understand themselves within a meaningful social context. Anomie and nihilism are often the rotten fruit. Splintered family units, erosion of community involvement, and dysfunctional institutions add to the rot. Those symptoms of cultural collapse need to be addressed even if they are among the most difficult wrong things to get right.

From the outset, credit goes to Jonathan Haidt for providing the ideas to launch this blog post. He appears to be making the rounds again flogging his most recent publication (where? I dunno, maybe The Atlantic). In the YouTube interview I caught, Haidt admits openly that as a social and behavioral psychologist, he’s prone to recommending incentives, programs, and regulations to combat destructive developments in contemporary life — especially those in the academy and on social media that have spread into politics and across the general public. Haidt wears impressive professional armor in support of arguments and contentions; I lack such rigor rather conspicuously. Accordingly, I offer no recommendations but instead try to limit myself to describing dynamics as an armchair social critic. Caveat emptor.

Haidt favors viewpoint diversity (see, for example, Heterodox Academy, which he helped to found and now chairs). Simple enough, right? Not so fast there, Señor Gonzalez! Any notion that even passing acquaintance with a given subject requires knowing both pros and cons is anathema to many of today’s thinkers, who would rather plug their ears and pretend opposition voices, principled or otherwise, are simply incoherent, need not be considered, and further, should be silenced and expunged. As a result, extremist branches of any faction tend to be ideological echo chambers. Cardinal weaknesses in such an approach are plain enough for critical thinkers to recognize, but if one happens to fall into one of those chambers, silos, or bubbles (or attend a school that trains students in rigid thinking), invitations to challenge cherished and closely held beliefs, upon which identity is built, mostly fall on deaf ears. The effect is bad enough in individuals, but when spread across organizations that adopt ill-advised solutionism, Haidt’s assessment is that institutional stupidity sets in. The handy example is higher education (now an oxymoron). Many formerly respectable institutions have essentially abandoned reason (ya know, the way reasonable people think) and begun flagellating themselves in abject shame over, for instance, a recovered history of participation in any of the cultural practices now cause for immediate and reflexive cancellation.

By way of analogy, think of one’s perspective as a knife (tool, not weapon) that requires periodic sharpening to retain effectiveness. Refusing to entertain opposing viewpoints is like sharpening only one side of the blade, resulting in a blunt, useless tool. That metaphor suggests a false dualism: two sides to an argument/blade when in fact many facets inform most complex issues, thus viewpoint diversity. By working in good faith with both supporters and detractors, better results (though not perfection) can be obtained than when radicalized entities come to dominate and impose their one-size-fits-all will indiscriminately. In precisely that way, it’s probably better not to become any too successful or powerful lest one be tempted to embrace a shortsighted will to power and accept character distortions that accompany a precipitous rise.

As mentioned a couple blog posts ago, an unwillingness to shut up, listen, and learn (why bother? solutions are just … so … obvious …) has set many people on a path of activism. The hubris of convincing oneself of possession of solutions to intractable issues is bizarre. Is there an example of top-down planning, channeling, and engineering of a society that actually worked without tyrannizing the citizenry in the process? I can’t think of one. Liberal democratic societies determined centuries ago that freedom and self-determination mixed with assumed responsibility and care within one’s community are preferable to governance that treats individuals as masses to be forced into conformity (administrative or otherwise), regulated heavily, and/or disproportionately incarcerated like in the U.S. But the worm has turned. Budding authoritarians now seek reforms and uniformity to manage diverse, messy populations.

Weirdly, ideologues also attempt to purge and purify history, which is chock full of villainy and atrocity. Those most ideologically possessed seek both historical and contemporary targets to denounce and cancel, not even excluding themselves because, after all, the scourges of history are so abject and everyone benefited from them somehow. Search oneself for inherited privilege and all pay up for past iniquities! That’s the self-flagellating aspect: taking upon oneself (and depositing on others) the full weight of and responsibility for the sins of our forebears. Yet stamping out stubborn embers of fires allegedly still burning from many generations ago is an endless task. Absolutely no one measures up to expectations of sainthood when situated with an inherently and irredeemably evil society of men and women. That’s original sin, which can never be erased or forgiven. Just look at what humanity (via industrial civilization) has done to the surface of the planet. Everyone is criminally culpable. So give up all aspirations; no one can ever be worthy. Indeed, who even deserves to live?

Heard a remark (can’t remember where) that most these days would attack as openly ageist. Basically, if you’re young (let’s say below 25 years of age), then it’s your time to shut up, listen, and learn. Some might even say that true wisdom doesn’t typically emerge until much later in life, if indeed it appears at all. Exceptions only prove the rule. On the flip side, energy, creativity, and indignation (e.g., “it’s not fair! “) needed to drive social movements are typically the domain of those who have less to lose and everything to gain, meaning those just starting out in adult life. A full age range is needed, I suppose, since society isn’t generally age stratified except at the extremes (childhood and advanced age). (Turns out that what to call old people and what counts as old is rather clumsy, though probably not especially controversial.)

With this in mind, I can’t help but to wonder what’s going on with recent waves of social unrest and irrational ideology. Competing factions agitate vociferously in favor of one social/political ideology or another as though most of the ideas presented have no history. (Resemblances to Marxism, Bolshevism, and white supremacy are quite common. Liberal democracy, not so much.) Although factions aren’t by any means populated solely by young people, I observe that roughly a decade ago, higher education in particular transformed itself into an incubator for radicals and revolutionaries. Whether dissatisfaction began with the faculty and infected the students is impossible for me to assess. I’m not inside that intellectual bubble. However, urgent calls for radical reform have since moved well beyond the academy. A political program or ideology has yet to be put forward that I can support fully. (My doomer assessment of what the future holds forestalls knowing with any confidence what sort of program or ideology into which to pour my waning emotional and intellectual energy.) It’s still fairly simple to criticize and denounce, of course. Lots of things egregiously wrong in the world.

My frustration with what passes for political debate (if Twitter is any indication) is the marked tendency to immediately resort to comparisons with Yahtzees in general or Phitler in particular. It’s unhinged and unproductive. Yahtzees are cited as an emotional trigger, much like baseless accusations of racism send everyone scrambling for cover lest they be cancelled. Typically, the Yahtzee/Phitler comparison or accusation itself is enough to put someone on their heels, but wizened folks (those lucky few) recognize the cheap rhetorical trick. The Yahtzee Protocol isn’t quite the same as Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer a discussion goes on (at Usenet in the earliest examples) increases the inevitability likelihood of someone bringing up Yahtzees and Phitler and ruining useful participation. The protocol has been deployed effectively in the Russian-Ukraine conflict, though I’m at a loss to determine in which direction. The mere existence of the now-infamous Azov Battalion, purportedly comprised is Yahtzees, means that automatically, reflexively, the fight is on. Who can say what the background rate of Yahtzee sympathizers (whatever that means) might be in any fighting force or indeed the general population? Not me. Similarly, what threshold qualifies a tyrant to stand beside Phitler on a list of worst evers? Those accusations are flung around like cooked spaghetti thrown against the wall just to see what sticks. Even if the accusation does stick, what possible good does it do? Ah, I know: it makes the accuser look like a virtuous fool.